Chiefs hold off Blues rally
Exeter Chiefs got their Heineken Cup campaign off to an impressive start with a bonus-point 44-29 victory over Cardiff Blues.
But after scoring five tries to lead 36-3 at the break, a 13-man Exeter shipped four tries in the second half to hand the Blues what could be a crucial bonus point of their own.
At one stage Cardiff trailed by just 12 points and threatened to grab a second bonus point - or even a bizarre win - but the Chiefs steadied the ship just in time.
The first-half Blues were absolutely shambolic. In all 19 tackles were missed by the visitors in the opening stanza, as their paper-thin defence was repeatedly scissored apart by Exeter's powerful running game.
Through little more than successive phases the Blues were cut open by Exeter's big carriers; Dave Ewers, Phil Dollman and the outstanding Tom Johnson all finding space.
A sustained passage of running rugby from the home side yielded the game's first try, Exeter using their back-row effectively as Ewers and Johnson launched an 80-metre surge towards the Cardiff line and Johnson who crossed over in the right-hand corner.
Halfpenny added the Blues opening points after Ian Whitten was penalised for holding on but Exeter dominated early possession and territory, Steenson adding three of his own for an 8-3 lead after 20 minutes.
The Chiefs' afternoon got even better when captain Dean Mumm galloped through, the former Wallaby scoring his fourth try in only six matches so far this season as the Blues payed the price for a stolen lineout within their own half.
By the time Matt Jess scampered through almost from the restart, the Blues were already pondering their journey home.
Exeter were hungrier for the ball at the breakdown and played at a ferocious pace to wrap up a try bonus point after half an hour, Fetu'u Vainikolo gliding inside Alex Cuthbert for the fourth try and a 29-3 scoreline.
By the time Ben White flopped over for the Chiefs' fifth try of the first-half, and a 33-point lead, the game was over - or so it seemed.
The one-way ttraffic continued immediately after the break as Whitten sprinted over after being released by Steenson's pass for the sixth try, but just a minute later Lloyd Williams snapped up a loose ball at the side of a ruck and ran in behind the defence.
It was a consolation try the Blues barely deserved, but it did give the Blues a spark. Exeter had controlled the breakdown for so long, but another loose ball out the side handed Robin Copeland a free run to the line as the Blues chased the possibility of a try bonus-point.
The Chiefs were then reduced to 13 men within a minute, as Whitten committed a deliberate knock-on and replacement Sireli Naqelevuki a high tackle. Momentum, dramatically, had swung in the Welsh side's favour.
Cuthbert's calm finish for the Blues' third try turned that 41-3 scoreline into 41-22, Exeter's numerical disadvantage proving crucial as an injury momentarily reduced them to 12 to leave Harry Robinson with plenty of open space to grab that bonus-point score.
A penalty from young replacement Henry Slade calmed any jittering nerves for the Exeter fans, who bizarrely had been left sweating having led by 38 points earlier in the second half.