Scotland scrum-half Sam Hidalgo-Clyne scored his first try for Exeter as the Chiefs moved 11 points clear at the Gallagher Premiership summit after beating title rivals Bristol 25-22 in thrilling fashion at a windswept Ashton Gate.
Bristol stay second and firmly on course for the play-offs, but the Bears were edged out by the favourites for this season’s Premiership silverware after Chiefs prop Billy Keast touched down three minutes from time and Gareth Steenson converted.
Despite Chiefs boss Rob Baxter making 14 changes to his line-up, Exeter displayed enviable squad depth as tries by centre Phil Dollman and summer recruit Hidalgo-Clyne helped them surge 15 points clear.
Bristol then wiped out that deficit through quickfire second-half tries from centre Piers O’Conor and wing Luke Morahan, with Callum Sheedy converting both scores and kicking a penalty.
Sheedy’s opposite number Steenson, who finished with ten points, edged Exeter back in front, only for Ioan Lloyd to claim Bristol’s third try.
An eighth successive Premiership win for Bristol looked likely, yet they were snuffed out by a resilient Exeter side with experienced Steenson controlling tactics superbly.
Sale claimed their first victory since exiting lockdown by emerging emphatic 20-11 winners over Wasps in an arm wrestle at the Ricoh Arena.
After defeats by Harlequins and Exeter, the Sharks reinforced their title challenge with a commanding display that elevated them above their opponents and into third place.
Sale surged clear in a productive third quarter with Luke James’ 61st-minute try proving to be the decisive blow.
Stand-off AJ MacGinty had kicked them into a solid lead before James struck as the culmination to a series of drives by a big Sharks pack that battered the home forwards out of contention.
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