After an early score from the visitors, Tigers roared in front with two tries from May and one from Taufua on his first appearance at his new home to lead 19-7 and they were 22-14 in front at half-time in Round 6 of the Gallagher Premiership.
Exeter, though, showed their resilience and then produced two tries in the space of four second-half minutes to wrestle back the lead with just quarter of an hour remaining and spent the remainder of the game with their hosts pinned back near their own line.
The Chiefs were beaten 27-7 as the opening visitors of the season in the Premiership Rugby Cup back in September but returned to Welford Road on the back of five wins in a row in the league and European Cup.
After George Ford got the game underway, kicking towards The Robin Hood Stand end on a dry and bright afternoon, some quick recycling in midfield created the first half-chance for Tigers with Manu Tuilagi nudging the ball forward for May to gather, but Chiefs quickly got back in behind the ball to close him out.
The first award – and sight of the posts – went to the Chiefs as Tigers went off their feet at a ruck in possession. Slade turned down the chance to go for the posts and punted down to the right-hand corner where Exeter are always so dangerous.
Sione Kalamafoni blocked a dart for the line from Kvesic from the lineout but Exeter retained ball through a couple extra phases before lock Jannes Kirsten made the final push to score. Gareth Steenson converted for an early lead.
But the response was immediate with Telusa Veaniu’s break on the right finding Adam Thompstone in support and his over-arm pass to May who ran in to score. Ford added the kick to level the scores with less than 10 minutes played.
Strong work from Dan Cole stalled the next Chiefs attack just inside the Tigers half and the Taufua made his presence felt as he won a penalty over the ball.
And he made an even bigger impact on 13 minutes with his first try in Tigers colours, collecting a clever cross-kick from Ford and barging through the final defender wide on the right before slamming the ball down one-handed near the posts. Ford’s extras made it 14-7 with 15 minutes gone.
Chiefs were pinned back by another Ford kick down the right after impressive work from the forward pack in defence on the halfway line and the Christmas crowd were in good voice as ferocious work from Genge and then Cole upset Chiefs rhythm on halfway and brought put-in at a scrum.
A penalty went in favour of the Tigers in the first scrum of the day on 19 minutes and, after attacking the line through Tuilagi and Genge, Ford and Tuilagi combined on the left. There was still a lot of work to do for May but with three defenders between him and the line he somehow squeezed over to score, confirmed by the TMO. Ford had a touchline conversion but pushed it just across the far post with his team 19-7 in front.
A messy restart gave Tigers a scrum on their own 22 following an Exeter knock-on but it was the visitors who came up with the next score, using their forwards to battle towards the line following a break down the left and Don Armand made the final stretch for the fifth try of the opening half-hour. Steenson’s conversion brought them within a score at 19-14.
Two big carries at pace from Tuilagi and May’s run on to a chip from Ford had Tigers barrelling forward again, and a quick penalty on the right threatened the line before knocking-on inside the Chiefs 22.
Taufua won another penalty as he met a Chiefs attack head-on just inside his own half. Ford booted play into the right-hand corner and Tigers initiated a drive to the line after the throw but were rewarded with a penalty which Ford kicked from the 22 to make it 22-14.
The half closed with Tigers providing stern defence as Ollie Devoto made a break almost up to the tryline and the usual Chiefs carries up front before Tigers earned a penalty over the ball, greeted by a huge cheer from the home crowd.
Tigers also lost Will Spencer to a head knock before closing the half 22-14 in front.
Another big hit from Taufua halted Chiefs on the 22, but he was then whistled for not rolling away and Steenson took the chance to kick the three-pointer and cut the gap to five points.
A clever link between Taufua, Thompstone and Noel Reid wide on the right almnst put Tigers through the Chiefs defence before the visitors recovered their shape and forced a spill from Ben Youngs. But the Tigers pack responded with a big push and a penalty award at the scrum on halfway.
Exeter, though, read the lineout call and stole ball, and then earned a penalty for foul play. However, Tigers quickly reclaimed ball in defence with Lavanini carrying strongly.
A penalty in Exeter favour, though, gave Steenson a chance to take play up to the 22 on their right but they spilled possession at the lineout. Tigers were then penalised at their own set-piece and Steenson set up the position to drive again. This time they were wrapped up on the ball and Tigers had the put-in at the resulting scrum and were able to clear their lines.
Clean ball wasn’t easy for either team with the defences roaring into the breakdown area but some slick hands and good support took Exeter 50 metres upfield before they showed their tighter control for Armand to level the scores with his second try of the day on 62 minutes.
Steenson’s conversion nudged the visitors in front at 22-24 as Tatafu Polota-Nau made his return from injury from the Tigers bench and just moments later they stretched that advantage when Jonny Hill got on the end of a move on the right to dot down their fourth try. Steenson added the kick to take the lead to nine points.
A Tuilagi charge from deep had the crowd in good voice again but Tigers were still having to play from deep and forced to keep ball in hand at the wrong end of the field with Chiefs defending across the pitch.