George Ford shook off his Rugby World Cup frustrations to slot straight back into the Bath Rugby side and kick them to an opening-weekend victory over Exeter Chiefs.
These sides met twice in pre-season with Exeter coming out on top on both occasions and they made a flying start to proceedings as debutant James Short crossed over in the second minute.
Bath – whose last Aviva Premiership Rugby outing was defeat to Saracens in last season’s final – responded with a try from skipper Stuart Hooper, leaving the match finely-balanced at half-time.
The second half proved to be a battle of the kickers as Gareth Steenson and Ford – part of the England squad that exited the World Cup at the pool stage last weekend – traded blows and it was the latter who struck the decisive penalty late on.
With the hosts pressing deep inside Chiefs territory early on, Tom Homer’s knock-on prompted a swift counter-attack and Short skipped past George Ford to race clear and score, though Gareth Steenson missed the extras.
Ford hit back from the tee after Bath earned a scrum penalty but Steenson soon made amends for his missed conversion with a penalty of his own – this time to hosts pinged at scrum time – by sneaking the ball inside the upright.
On balance, Bath’s scrum enjoyed the better of the early exchanges, while Homer shook off his early indiscretion with a lively display.
The hosts were well-contained, however, and Exeter came close to a second try after half an hour, only for Bath to hold Luke Cowan-Dickie up on the line and successfully turn over the resulting scrum.
They struck four minutes before the break when Anthony Watson found some space on the left wing and fed second row Hooper – of all people – on his right shoulder to streak clear unchallenged, Ford converting put the home side ahead for the first time.
But Exeter were ahead after at half-time after Matt Banahan was sent to the sin bin for a deliberate knock-on and Steenson tapped over from right in front of the posts.
Ford struck his second penalty between the uprights seven minutes into the half, before Sam Burgess and new signing Niko Matawalu – both fresh from their World Cup exploits – were introduced.
The Chiefs called on an England international of their own in Henry Slade but when they were awarded a penalty, Steenson kept hold of the kicking duties, putting them ahead once more.
The lead changed hands again – Ford making it 16-14 after Cowan-Dickie was caught with hands in the ruck – before Slade tried his hand at a long-range effort, which fell short.
Exeter took the initiative in the hunt for a decisive try and after replacement hooker – and club captain – Jack Yeandle was stopped just short, Slade knocked on when stretching for the line.
This got harder for Bath when Burgess was handed a ten-minute spell in the bin for an infringement bang in front of the posts and Steenson happily accepted the three points.
Bath enjoyed the better of the next ten minutes, despite the numerical disadvantage, and went ahead with just two minutes to go courtesy of a fourth Ford penalty.
The Chiefs were not about to throw in the towel and when they went up the other end with the clock in the red, Steenson fed Slade on the Bath 22 – but his drop-goal was deflected away to safety.
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