Forest Green Rovers fell to defeat in their first group game of the RFL Trophy, as Exeter City ran out 3-2 winners in Devon.

Matty Stevens scored six minutes into each half, but goals from from Nicky Ajose, Matt Jay and Josh Key were enough for Matt Taylor's Grecians.

Mark Cooper made 10 changes to the side that started the campaign last week in the Carabao Cup, as only Udoka Godwin-Malife lined up for the second time.

Academy graduates Vaughn Covil and Harvey Bunker both started together for the first time since signing professional deals, while second-year scholar Luke Hallett and 15-year-olds Jack Carter and Finn Bell earned spots on the bench.

Centre-back Liam Kitching carved out the first opportunity of the game, as his mazy run past five Exeter shirt saw him slide Stevens in, but the striker couldn’t get a shot off and had to settle for a corner.

It was the same pairing of former boxers that landed the first blow from the resulting cross, Kitching’s side-footed volley finding Stevens at the back post to nod across goal into the side netting.

It was again Rovers who carved out the next chance as Godwin-Malife slid in Scott Wagstaff inside the right channel, but his cut-back fell just behind Shawn McCoulsky.

With the half-hour mark approaching, Stevens had a chance to double his tally for the afternoon, but couldn’t keep his effort under the bar after Jack Evans driven cross from the left.

Two minutes later, Kitching, who had proved so impressive going forward, was called to his defensive duty. The 20-year-old did well to hold Matt Jay at arms-length before diving in to block the frontman’s shot.

The hosts should have found themselves on terms with 36 minutes played, but Ryan Bowman couldn’t connect with a perfect cross, miss-timing his volley from five yards out and completely missing the ball.

Stevens, proving ever the danger, latched onto a long ball with four minutes of the half to play, but miss-fired on the spin and lashed wide of the far post from outside the area.

Mere seconds shy of the referee’s whistle, the hosts found themselves on level terms.

Matt Jay won the ball back from the Rovers backline and tried his luck from the edge of the area, the midfielder’s strike flying through a crowd of bodies and taking a wicked deflection off Ajose and over a helpless Lewis Thomas.

It didn’t take long for Rovers to regain their lead, with the sun setting over St James’ Park.

Evans once again delivered an excellent set-piece into the area, and McCoulsky rose highest to nod the ball back into the six-yard box for Stevens to finish from close range.

The lead didn’t last long though. 57 minutes into the encounter the hosts got in down the right, and another fortuitous deflection saw a cross drop kindly for Jay to tuck home.

Just three minutes later, it was Forest Green’s turn to have favourable fortune on their side, as Jay struck a penalty against the base of the post after Dan Sweeney’s foul.

Rovers couldn’t hold off the sudden Exeter pressure though, and with 67 minutes on the clock the hosts took the lead for the first time as Josh Key looped a header into the net.

Rovers pushed for a late equaliser, their best chance coming by way of Taylor Allen's side-footed volley, but it was comfortable for former-FGR stopper Jonny Maxted on the angle.

Forest Green XI: Thomas, Bernard (c), Kitching (Sweeney 55’), Stevens, Allen, Evans, McCoulsky, Wagstaff (Young 46’), Godwin-Malife, Covil, Bunker

Unused subs: McGee, Carter, Bell, Hallett

Exeter City XI: Maxted, Key, Dyer, Parkes (Randall 57’), Dean (Sweeney 46’), Sparkes, Kite, Taylor (c), Jay, Bowman (Morison 70’), Ajose

Unused subs: Ward, Cox, Iseguan, Atangana

Next up: Forest Green start their EFL League Two season at Bolton Wanderers on Saturday, September 12, 3pm.