Nick Abendanon’s superb solo try proved pivotal as Bath Rugby maintained their dominant record over Exeter Chiefs with a thrilling 27-23 victory at Sandy Park.
Replacement Abendanon struck the decisive blow midway through the second half and while the Chiefs hit back through centre Ian Whitten, Bath held on to ensure they have now lost just once in their last 19 matches.
Bolstered by their returning England stars George Ford, Kyle Eastmond and Anthony Watson – and potentially one of the future in Ollie Devoto – Bath were able to cement their place in third spot, ensuring Exeter have still never beaten their West Country rivals in the Aviva Premiership.
Indeed, Ford again enhanced his claim for a first England cap with a man-of-the-match performance while both Devoto and Eastmond went over for the visitors.
And while the Chiefs were on the scoreboard through Ben White and Whitten, Abendanon’s effort was the difference between the sides.
Exeter began the brighter and they opened the scoring on ten minutes when Bath’s Springbok flanker Francois Louw was penalised for not rolling away.
Gareth Steenson made no mistake from the tee but three minutes later Bath were level when Chiefs’ skipper Dean Mumm was penalised. Ford opened his account with a well-judged penalty into the wind.
That did little to knock the wind out of Exeter’s sails however and the hosts, who were enjoying the better of the scrum battle, continued to enjoy plenty of possession.
Their handling was letting them down however and no more so than when a long kick forward on 22 minutes wasn’t quite gathered by the covering Watson and the ball popped up with the try-line beckoning, only for Whitten to knock on.
Then came a moment of magic from Ford on 26 minutes when a show and go committed a number of Exeter defenders and freed Eastmond, in turn finding 20-year-old Devoto, who scorched to the try-line, beating two defenders including full-back Luke Arscott with a fine step, for his first Premiership try.
Ford converted and Bath began to exert their authority on proceedings but another fine break by Devoto saw Matt Garvey knock on and Exeter’s clearance kick found Watson and Horacio Agulla under pressure – the latter coughing up a penalty for holding on.
Steenson made no mistake and Exeter were ahead just before the break. The hosts, scenting blood, turned down a kick at goal with a penalty, instead kicking for the corner and after winning the lineout and going through the phases, flanker White barged over. Steenson converted for a 13-10 lead at the break.
The Chiefs extended their lead soon after the break as Exeter continued to dominate the scrum – Wales prop Paul James was the offender this time and Steenson nailed the penalty for a 16-10 lead.
But Bath were far from finished and the class of their England contingent soon told. Eastmond, Ford and Watson were all to the fore as the visitors surged their way up field through a number of phases before Eastmond finished off under the posts.
Ford converted and when Abendanon struck with a wonderful finish – chipping ahead at full tilt before diving and touching down with his left hand – it appeared Exeter’s miserable run against Bath was set to continue, especially after the conversion gave the visitors an eight-point cushion.
But back came Exeter and within five minutes they were within a point again when Whitten surged through the Bath defence with Steenson adding the extras on 68 minutes.
The Chiefs pressed for the score that would give them the lead but Ford gave Stuart Lancaster a timely reminder of his talents with an injury-time penalty to seal the victory.