Bath power past Exeter
Bath underlined their Aviva Premiership title credentials after superior forward power underpinned a 31-14 bonus point victory over play-off rivals Exeter at the Recreation Ground.
Tries by wing Horacio Agulla, centre Kyle Eastmond, replacement lock Dave Attwood and full-back Anthony Watson ensured that Bath kept the heat on champions and current Premiership pace-setters Northampton heading into the new year.
Fly-half George Ford converted all four touchdowns and added a penalty, while Exeter - in third spot before kick-off - replied through tries from wing Matt Jess and wing Jack Nowell, with Gareth Steenson landing both conversions.
Bath, who gave rugby league import Sam Burgess an 18-minute run off the bench, look by far the biggest threat to Saints' reign as England's premier club.
Exeter, though, made them battle every inch of the way and they were level at 14-14 until Attwood's second-half arrival as a replacement raised Bath's forward tempo.
And that sparked a period of the home side scoring 17 unanswered points as they set themselves up nicely for next Sunday's Premiership appointment with fierce rivals Leicester at Welford Road.
Bath boss Mike Ford changed the entire front-row that was on duty against Gloucester last weekend, with Nick Auterac, Rob Webber and Henry Thomas all gaining starts.
Exeter's eight-game unbeaten run ended through defeat against Sale Sharks last time out, and three switches from that game saw centre Sam Hill, hooker Jack Yeandle and flanker Don Armand all called up by head coach Rob Baxter.
Bath made the early running and after Exeter centre Henry Slade was penalised for a late challenge on home scrum-half Chris Cook, Ford maintained pressure by rifling possession deep into the Chiefs' 22.
But just when Bath thought they had done enough to unlock Exeter's defence through a rampaging run to the line by wing Matt Banahan, play was called back by referee J P Doyle for a forward pass and it remained 0-0.
Both teams displayed a tendency to run with possession, rather than kick it away, yet despite that admirable sense of adventure, poor execution meant that neither line was threatened apart from Banahan's disallowed score.
Exeter, though, broke the deadlock after 24 minutes after a superb pick-up and pass by skipper Dean Mumm allowed Jess a 50-metre run to the Bath posts for a try that Steenson converted.
Bath needed just four minutes to draw level, with slick threequarter handling creating sufficient space for Agulla, who cut neatly back inside to claim a well-worked score which Ford converted.
And as half-time approached, Bath's lauded handling game moved up a gear, with Ford and his half-back partner Chris Cook heavily involved in creating an opening for Eastmond that he gratefully accepted.
Ford's successful conversion put Bath 14-7 ahead, yet there appeared to be plenty left in a game that had richly entertained through its invigorating ebb and flow nature.
And Exeter duly obliged, drawing level for a second time within five minutes of the restart when Hill's break and clever kick ahead saw Nowell react quickest and claim a poacher's try that Steenson converted.
Exeter were in no mood to play second fiddle, despite having never previously beaten Bath in the Premiership, yet they were smashed on to the back foot through a ruthless 57th-minute Bath driving maul that ended with Attwood powering over as the Chiefs had no answer to such power.
Ford's successful touchline conversion made it 21-14 and Bath were now in search of a bonus point, having flicked a switch up-front that left Exeter floundering.
Burgess then replaced Jonathan Joseph early in the final quarter as Exeter pressed to get back in touch following a Ford penalty that opened up a 10-point Bath lead.
But the Chiefs found it increasingly hard work as Bath's forwards - lifted significantly by Attwood's arrival off the bench - looked to turn the screw.
And life did not get any easier for Exeter as second-row forward Mitch Lees was sin-binned 10 minutes from time, leaving the Chiefs to cope with 14 men opposite a growing Bath force in search of a five-point maximum.
Predictably, it was too much to cope with, and Watson administered the final blow two minutes from time when he crossed unopposed, and Ford's conversion took Bath past 30 points.