Chiefs 19 Irish 22
Exeter Chiefs 19
London Irish 22
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
Bigger challenges than this loom ahead for the Exeter Chiefs in the coming weeks, but that doesn’t mean the high standards demanded around the Devon club can be allowed to ease before then.
After the high of Saturday and victory over Toulouse, so came the low with defeat against London Irish at Sandy Park.
Rob Baxter’s side may have already booked their place in next month’s Heineken Champions Cup final, as well as the Gallagher Premiership play-offs, but there is still other on-field matters which needed to be dealt with first.
Up against the visiting Exiles, a healthy mix of youth and experience were afforded the chance to take to the stage and deliver a performance of their own. Sadly, they couldn’t quite capture the moment, at times fluffing their lines, before eventually going down by a three-point margin.
Tries from Will Witty, Ollie Devoto and Tom Hendrickson, two of which were converted by Harvey Skinner, were the highlights. However, it was other elements of the home script which didn’t deliver, gifting Irish a first top-flight win since rugby restarted last month.
First half scores for Matt Cornish and Curtis Rona, another for Agustin Creevy in the second, plus seven points from the boot of Paddy Jackson condemned the Chiefs to only their sixth league loss in 20 starts.
Returning to Premiership action after their European Champions Cup exploits, it was a much-changed Chiefs line-up that took to the field for this penultimate fixture of the regular season. Indeed, just skipper Don Armand and replacement Dave Dennis were kept in place from the Exeter side that saw off Toulouse just days earlier.
In their place, a healthy splattering of youth and experience were given their chance to shine, including No.8 Aaron Hinkley, who was making his first start for the club since his move from Gloucester during lockdown.
Irish arrived in the Westcountry having lost all seven of their previous league games. However, they started this latest match-up very much on the front foot, propelling themselves into their Devon hosts at a rate of knots.
Early pressure brought them two shots at goal for Irish international Jackson, but on both occasions his normally laser-guided boot fired wide of the target.
The visitors continued to press hard in attack with Cornish busting through the middle of the home defensive line, linking well with scrum-half Ben Meehan, only for the latter to be repelled just shy of the line by some crafty scramble defence from the ‘Men in Black’.
The Chiefs were certainly living dangerously, but Irish momentum was finally rewarded when fly-half Jackson stroked them in front on 20 minutes when home prop Marcus Street was pulled up by referee Ian Tempest for not rolling away at a ruck.
That lead, however, proved short-lived as the Chiefs - with their first meaningful foray into enemy territory - bagged the game’s first try just two minutes later. Rona’s indiscretion at a ruck just outside his 22 allowed Skinner to bang the resultant penalty into the corner.
Handed the perfect attacking platform, the home side initially turned to their tried-and-trusted, five-metre catch-and-drive, before the ball was worked back inside, through a succession of bludgeoning phases, from which lock Witty was able to burrow over for the unconverted score.
Up and running, the Chiefs were looking to kick on from Witty’s try. Instead, a loose clearance kick from Stu Townsend - making his first appearance since February - saw Irish winger Ben Loader return the punt with interest, linking well with Jackson who, despite being chopped down shy of the home try-line, was able to present the ball to be recycled round the corner for Cornish to score.
Jackson failed miserably with the routine conversion attempt - and he was shown how it should be done at the other end, the Chiefs added a second try on 34 minutes through Devoto. The England international was able to drive over for the score, after Townsend, Hinkley and Olly Woodburn had combined down the right flank, before it was moved back inside to the centre.
It was a lead the Chiefs should have held going into the interval. However, there desire to press for greater reward with the last play of the half, actually came back to bite them when Rona gobbled up a pass from Skinner to race from deep inside his own 22 for a score in the right corner. Jackson, with his hardest kick to date, this time made no mistake to give his side a slender lead at the turn.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 12 LONDON IRISH 15
On the resumption, the Chiefs were forced into an early change with prop Billy Keast limping out of the action following a hefty collision on halfway - and they were again forced to subdue some heavy Irish pressure as the visitors looked to increase their advantage.
It was a strong early press from Declan Kidney’s men, but the Chiefs were standing firm under the bombardment, so much so that when the visitors attempted to change direction on one particular attack, centre Hendrickson ran out of the line, plucking the ball from the night air, before racing even further than Rona in the first half to restore Exeter’s lead with a third try, converted by the boot of Skinner.
Lifted by the score, the Chiefs went in search for further reward as Devoto, Hendrickson and Dennis all made decent inroads with some heavyweight carries, but Irish were this time able to withstand the threat, working together in small defensive teams to dent the home charge.
Having survived the threat, it was then the turn of the visitors to apply their foot to the throat of the Chiefs. With an ever-increasing edge at the set-piece, Irish were able to use the string of penalties to position themselves deep into the Exeter half.
Initially, Baxter’s men held off the threat, turning over an Irish line-out just metres from their own line. However, afforded another chance on 67 minutes, this time they made no mistake as Argentinian hooker Creevy squirmed his way over from a five-metre drive to claim their third score, converted with aplomb from wide on the left touchline by Jackson.
Down by three, heading into the final ten minutes, the Chiefs threw caution to the wind. A penalty of their own allowed Skinner to once again put them in prime position just yards from the visiting line. Then, when Armand plucked the subsequent line-out, you expected the drive to go on, the bodies to merge as one, and the arm of referee Tempest to shoot straight into the sky.
Well, the first two elements of the plan worked a treat, but as they looked destined to touchdown, clever work from the Irish defenders saw them clamp onto the ball, winning a decisive turnover scrum.
Even then, the Chiefs still had another shot at claiming a last-gasp win. A succession of hard yards were made in the approach work, but just as they needed to crank into the next level of attack, the ball was coughed up, gifting Irish a rare win in the Westcountry.
For Baxter, Sunday’s visit to Wasps offers a chance of a quick riposte to this rare home setback. However, who gets the nod, particularly given the importance of games on the horizon, remains to be seen.
Chiefs: P Dollman; F Cordero, T Hendrickson (C Baldwin 61), O Devoto, O Woodburn; H Skinner, S Townsend (S Maunder 61); B Keast (J Kenny 44), J Innard (E Taione 59), M Street (A Petch 59); W Witty (D Dennis 52), T Price (W Witty 61); R Capstick, D Armand (capt), A Hinkley (C Wright 61). Replacement (not used): J Walsh.
Tries - Witty, Devoto, Hendrickson; Conversions - H Skinner (2)
Irish: T Homer (J Stokes 55) B Loader, C Rona, P Cokanasiga (T Brophy-Clews 64), O Hassell-Collins; P Jackson, B Meehan (N Phipps 51); H Elrington (W Goodrick-Clarke 52), M Cornish (A Creevy 52), O Hoskins (L Chawatama 67); G Nott, S De Chaves (C Munga 64); M Rogerson (capt), B Donnell (I Moore Aiono 76), A Tuisue.
Tries - Cornish, Rona, Creevy; Conversions - Jackson (2); Penalty - Jackson
Referee: I Tempest