Jack Nowell’s all-round excellence for Exeter outshines Bath’s Rokoduguni

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There was no shortage of advice for the watching Eddie Jones from the home supporters in the first half as the wing Semesa Rokoduguni, who had been left out of this week’s England training camp in Brighton only to get a reprieve late last night, ran rampant.

He scored one try and was denied another by a wing Jones selected ahead of him, Jack Nowell. “It was like Harry Potter had given him his cloak of invisibility,” said the head coach, Rob Baxter. “We couldn’t lay a hand on him.”

It was Nowell, though, who collected the man-of-the-match award after the Chiefs, 11-0 down and looking out of it after an hour, , winning at the Rec in the league for the first time through the replacement wing James Short’s two tries in the final seven minutes.

Nowell was involved in the second, looking as if he would make it to the line before being tackled by Tom Homer. When Exeter moved the ball left, Gareth Steenson defied another Homer challenge to pass the ball through his legs and it bounced kindly for Short to cross unopposed and condemn Bath to their first home defeat of the season.

The performances of Rokoduguni and Nowell explained England’s initial selection. For all his menace with the ball in hand and his ability to confound defenders by stepping round them as well as going through them, the Bath wing was less polished in defence and was caught out for Exeter’s first try. As Luke Cowan-Dickie juggled with the ball after George Ford had tried to dislodge it after the hooker had got through two tackles, Rokoduguni was drawn towards him and out of position when the ball was slipped to Short, who shrugged off the wing’s challenge to score.

Nowell, in contrast, made his tackles count in an all-round display of excellence. Rokoduguni looked certain to score after catching his own chip from 60 metres and getting close to the line before the Exeter wing brought him down and turned him on his back to prevent the ball being grounded. After the interval, he thwarted another move sparked by George Ford, who from Sunday is free to talk to other clubs as he ponders a move away from Bath, and brought Jonathan Joseph to ground as the centre anticipated breaking into space.

“I am finally getting back into my stride,” said Nowell, who missed the autumn internationals through an injury sustained in England’s October camp in Brighton. “Rob Baxter had a few words to say to us at half-time because we had slipped off tackles and in the second half we took it to them.

“Rob has put a lot of pressure on us in the last couple of weeks because in past seasons we have tended to drop off around the Christmas period, but we with success at Bath and we can look forward to going to Saracens next weekend.”

Bath’s director of rugby, Todd Blackadder, was left to reflect on an impressive attacking display that yielded a mere bonus point after the loss of three props with head injuries, including Nathan Catt who had little more than an hour before been named in England’s squad, left them a player short in the final minutes as they were forced to go to uncontested scrums under rules designed to stop teams getting battered up front feigning injuries.

Bath are struggling to find four fit props for Friday’s trip to Newcastle and will be without their No8 Taulupe Faletau, who has suffered the recurrence of a knee-ligament injury, for a month after which he will join up with Wales for the Six Nations. Zach Mercer deputised against Worcester and the 19-year-old stood out with his footwork, off-loading and anticipation.

“All three props stayed off the field through the safety protocols in place and it is something that needs to be looked at down the line,” said Blackadder. “We were really clinical up to the hour mark [when Nick Auterac became the third prop to leave with a head injury] and while Exeter hung in there and all credit to them, it was a frustrating defeat.”

Ford had been at his impish best in that hour, helping Bath outwit opponents who ended the afternoon leapfrogging them into third place in the table. Asked if he had lined up a replacement outside-half, Blackadder said: “We have a few irons in the fire but it depends what George’s decision is. It would have to be someone of high quality if George is to leave us.”

Bath T Homer; Rokoduguni, Joseph, Tapuai (Clark, 78), Brew (Watson, 52); Ford, Fotiuali’i; Catt (Auterac, 19; Van Vuuren, 61), Dunn, Lahiff (Knight, 32), Garvey (Stooke, 62), Attwood, Ellis, Louw (Grant, 65), Z Mercer.

Try Rokoduguni. Pens Ford 2.

Exeter Dollman; Nowell, Devoto, Hill, Woodburn (Short, 52); Steenson (capt), Chudley (Maunder, 61); Moon (Rimmer, 50), Yeandle (Cowan-Dickie, 50), Francis (Holmes, 50), Lees, Hill (Atkins, 63), Dennis (Horstmann, 59), Armand, Waldrom.

Tries Short 2. Cons Steenson 2. Pen Steenson.

Referee C Maxwell-Keys. Attendance 14,509.