Exeter Chiefs ended their Aviva Premiership campaign on a high and secured their place in next season’s Heineken Cup in the process with a nailbiting 40-39 victory over Gloucester Rugby at Sandy Park.
Both sides accepted the invitation to cut loose on firm ground with six tries in the first half alone, and eight in total.
But Exeter got their noses back in front in the dying moments with a Gareth Steenson penalty to claim sixth place in the table against their West Country opponents, who already had fifth in the bag and nothing riding on victory.
Richard Baxter led out Exeter on what was his 431st and final appearance for the Chiefs, and the home side were quickly into their stride.
Fly-half Steenson found a touch deep in the Gloucester 22 that Sione Kalamafoni claimed from the lineout only for Exeter to win the ball back, with the ball spun wide to Phil Dollman who offloaded to Aussie Dean Mumm to cross for the game’s opening try.
Steenson slotted a tricky conversion and shortly after it was 10-0 as opposite number Freddie Burns was pinged for not rolling away from the tackle and Steenson added a penalty.
With Gloucester struggling to sort out their defensive line in midfield Exeter extended their advantage after a series of raids down the right flank.
Lock Dean Welch was awarded the Chiefs’ second try of the afternoon after a long deliberation from the television match official, although Steenson was wayward with the extras and it remained 15-0.
Peter Buxton replaced Kalamafoni for Gloucester after the forward failed to recover from an early knock, with Buxton making the 274th and final appearance of an 11-year career with the Cherry & Whites.
Another Steenson penalty in front of the posts put Exeter in clear control with an 18-0 lead, but Gloucester nerves were settled on 21 minutes when Burns replied with a penalty of his own to get them on the score board.
And the England fly-half showed all his skills to accelerate into space before flinging the ball to scrum-half Dan Robson who ran half the length of the pitch before drawing the tackle and finding Jonny May who romped home for Gloucester’s first try. Burns pushed the conversion across the posts, but Exeter’s lead was reduced to ten points.
The comeback was nearly complete when centre Henry Trinder snaffled ball at the breakdown and found Burns who danced past his man and passed inside to Lua Lokotui, who in turn found the rampaging Charlie Sharples in space on his shoulder to race home unhindered. Burns added the extras and the gap was suddenly only three points.
And the visitors took the lead for the first time seven minutes before the interval when Trinder intercepted the ball and ran the length of the field to show off his own turn of speed, cruising in under the posts.
The conversion made it 22-18 to Gloucester, a score that looked impossible after the first 18 minutes, but they couldn’t hold the lead until half-time as Exeter battled back.
A series of scrums deep in the Gloucester 22 ended with referee Greg Garner awarding the Chiefs a penalty try that Steenson converted.
Leading 25-22 at the interval, Steenson increased the lead to six points with a penalty seconds after the restart.
Two further penalties from Steenson on 51 and 56 minutes appeared to put Exeter in control heading into the final quarter of the match as Gloucester continued to struggle at the set-piece.
But their work in open play, centred around the mercurial Burns, continued to spark with the fly-half spotting a gap and sidestepping his man before sending full-back Rob Cook over in the corner for a well-worked try. The conversion and then an immediate Burns penalty made it a two-point game once again with everything still to play for.
The irrepressible Steenson refused to buckle adding another penalty before Burns brought Gloucester level with a try of his own.
The Cherry & Whites kicked a series of penalties to the corner and the pressure eventually told, Twelvetrees sending Burns over in the corner. His conversion struck the post and bounced over to give Gloucester a two-point lead with seven minutes to play.
With time ticking away Exeter were awarded a penalty 40 metres out for a deliberate Cook knock-on but Steenson couldn’t land it and their battle looked over. But Twelvetrees failed to find touch with his hurried clearance and it went straight back to Steenson in space.
The fly-half headed for the posts and a series of pick-and-drives ended with another penalty for the home side, which Steenson slotted under pressure to give Exeter the lead once more.
And they held out despite a late Burns drop goal attempt to secure sixth spot and Heineken Cup rugby for the second season in a row.