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Jacques Vermeulen ‘close’ to England qualification as Exeter flanker stars in win over Gloucester

Jacques Vermeulen of Exeter Chiefs looks on as he poses for a photograph with the Gallagher Player of the Match medal after the Gallagher Premiership Rugby match between Gloucester Rugby and Exeter Chiefs at Kingsholm Stadium on April 28, 2024 in Gloucester, England
Vermeulen was a part of a bruising back row alongside Ethan Roots and Greg Fisilau - Getty Images/Ryan Hiscott

Gloucester could yet end this campaign with two more trophies than Exeter Chiefs, but one side would still harbour significantly more optimism over next season. This breezy bonus-point victory meant that Rob Baxter’s men retain a slim hope of reaching the Premiership play-offs. Even if they fall short, followers of Exeter should be highly enthusiastic about the future.

Jacques Vermeulen, the former South Africa Under-20 international who arrived at Sandy Park in 2019, scored twice and was the stand-out of Exeter’s muscular back-row display in harness with Ethan Roots and Greg Fisilau. Tantalisingly, Baxter confirmed that Vermeulen is “close” to qualifying for England on residency. His ballast, mobility and breakdown nous will be familiar to Steve Borthwick. Despite fierce competition for places, it is fairly easy to imagine the industrious, Paarl-born flanker thriving in a Test match. At 29, he could crash into the reckoning.

Speaking of bristling ball-carriers, Immanuel Feyi-Waboso maintained the impetus of his exceptional breakthrough with another all-action effort that included a try among other contributions all over the Kingsholm pitch. While Henry Slade, at 31, is a stalwart of this team, the positive chatter about a contract extension has added to a feeling that Exeter can mount a title tilt for 2025. He slotted all six kicks from the tee, attacked with typical elegance and led the defensive line.

Baxter insisted that play-off permutations have not figured in Exeter’s planning. Instead, they have been itching to prove that they are learning on the job. Just do not call it overachievement.

“We probably are overachieving a little bit, but in other people’s minds more than our own,” Baxter explained. “In our own, we want to be competitive all the time. That’s what the group is like.”

“The growth we’ve got is absolutely incredible,” added Baxter, with the reminder that Dafydd Jenkins, the incumbent Wales and Exeter captain, could still represent the University of Exeter. “I wanted Gloucester to look at us and go: ‘Bloody hell, we’ve got to play Exeter twice next year’. When we play Harlequins [on May 11], I want them to say the same. All of our lads will be a year older, and they’re not going to be 33. They’re going to be 22.”

George Skivington, meanwhile, was left to rue missed opportunities and passive moments. Damningly, he suggested that Gloucester, who have spent most of this league schedule just above Newcastle Falcons in ninth, had one eye on next Saturday’s Challenge Cup semi-final against Benetton. Victory in that tournament would complement Premiership Cup success in March. As a mark of their chaotic build-up, though, Gloucester fielded two scrum-halves on the bench, with Santiago Carreras having undergone surgery on an appendicitis last week.

Skivington pointed out that Tomos Williams and Gareth Anscombe will add experience for next season. The Premiership will be prioritised again then. “I definitely won’t be happy with the league regardless of what happens,” Skivington conceded. “There are three trophies you can go after in a year. If you get one, you’ve achieved something. We set out to get the Premiership Cup and we got it. Does that make the Premiership form OK? No. It’s a real season of highs and lows.”

Feyi-Waboso was into his work quickly. He picked from a breakdown and buffeted Arthur Clark backwards before chasing his own up-and-under to whack Ruan Ackermann. Looking into a decent breeze, Slade split the uprights to punish a soft breakdown penalty conceded by Ackermann.

After a scrambling tackle from Olly Woodburn on Max Llewellyn, Exeter found fluency, with Feyi-Waboso popping up off the shoulders of Harvey Skinner and Slade. They eked out a close-range penalty and Vermeulen finished from Fisilau’s pass. Dan John promptly had the second, following up Slade’s first-phase break up the middle.

Close to the half-hour mark, Gloucester mustered a scrappy response through the departing Jonny May but Slade glided through to find Woodburn with a well-weighted pass. Jack Clement picked a nice angle and charged through to keep Gloucester close enough, but botched chances followed either side of the break. Feyi-Waboso and Vermeulen, shunting over for his second, proved that Exeter were the more accurate, though Clark charged down Tom Cairns for Gloucester’s third try.

A ragged final quarter featured plenty of Gloucester endeavour for little reward. Perhaps the loudest cheers of the afternoon arrived in the 79th minute when Christophe Ridley collared Slade for a forward pass. Home supporters left Kingsholm frustrated. They would be forgiven for feeling envious, too.

Match details

Scoring sequence: 0-3 Slade penalty, 0-8 Vermeulen try, 0-10 Slade conversion, 0-15 John try, 0-17 Slade conversion, 5-17 May try, 5-22 Woodburn try, 5-24 Slade conversion, 10-24 Clement try, 10-29 Fey-Waboso try, 10-31 Slade conversion, 15-31 Clark try, 17-31 Atkinson conversion, 17-36 Vermeulen try, 17-38 Slade conversion

Gloucester: J Morris; J May, C Harris, M Llewellyn (L Hillman-Cooper, 50), O Thorley; C Atkinson (C Englefield, 60), S Varney (C Chapman, 60); J Ford-Robinson (M Vivas, h-t), S Blake (S Socino, h-t), K Gotovsev (C Knight, h-t), F Clarke (F Thomas, 57), A Clark, R Ackermann (L Ludlow, 60), J Clement, Z Mercer

Exeter Chiefs: D John (W Haydon-Wood, 50); I Feyi-Waboso, H Slade, J Hawkins (Z Wimbush, 74), O Woodburn; H Skinner, T Cairns (N Armstrong, 60); S Sio (D Southworth, 60), J Yeandle (M Norey, 60), M Street (E Painter, 60), J Dunne (C Tshiunza, 60), D Jenkins, E Roots (R Vintcent, 76), J Vermeulen, G Fisilau

Referee: Mr C Ridley

Attendance: 11,726

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