Chiefs 21 Irish 33
Exeter Chiefs 21
London Irish 33
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
There was a time when an away-day victory at Sandy Park was as scarce as a sighting of Lord Lucan.
This season, though, Rob Baxter’s Exeter side have already suffered two setbacks in just three starts – and the Chiefs’ Director of Rugby knows he will need to find a quick remedy to their home woes.
Just like Northampton Saints emerged victorious in Round One, this time it was London Irish who headed back to the capital with maximum reward following a disciplined and physical display from the visiting Exiles in this Round Six encounter.
In securing their first win of the season, they not ended a 210-day wait for a top-flight triumph, but at the same time they gave Baxter and his fellow coaches plenty to ponder ahead of Friday’s quick turnaround trip to Gloucester.
Having stormed into a 14 point lead inside the opening ten minutes thanks to converted tries from Agustin Creevy and Curtis Rona, Irish were soon pegged back as the Chiefs kicked into gear with scores of their own through Will Witty and a beauty from Stuart Hogg.
With many inside Sandy Park expecting last season’s beaten finalists to pick up from where they left off, again the Chiefs were slow out of the blocks at the start of the second half, falling to another quick-fire double, this time from Benhard Van Rensburg and Ben Loader.
Worse would follow for the hosts, who fell even further behind when winger Ollie Hassell-Collins scampered down the short side to put the visitors away in the distance.
Jack Nowell cut the deficit with a score in the final quarter, but that proved a rare highlight on a day when the Devonians were distinctly second best in all departments.
Looking to build on recents wins over Sale Sharks, Worcester and, more recently, Wasps – Baxter made a handful of changes to his side, drafting in Ben Moon, Jack Yeandle, Sam Nixon and Sam Skinner to his pack, while behind Joe Simmonds and Tom O’Flaherty were both recalled having started the previous week on the bench.
It was a special moment for Simmonds – who along with Ollie Devoto – became the latest inductees into the club’s list of centurions. However, he could did little to prevent a storming opening from the visitors, who took just four minutes to break the deadlock.
Quickly into their stride, Irish worked their way through a string of early raids, the fruits of which released imposing Fijian Albert Tuisue on the charge. He made a signficiant dent in the home defensive line, before Argentinian hooker Creevy took up the charge, burrowing his way over from close range to score.
Irishman Paddy Jackson converted that score and then added the extras to their second, which arrived just six minutes later, centre Rona the beneficiary on this occasion as he burst his way through some wishy-washy defending from the Chiefs to finish off a 15-phase attack by the home posts.
With the large majority of Sandy Park somewhat shell-shocked at the opening they had just seen, the Chiefs knew they had to summon a rapid response. Great work from Nowell at the restart seemed to ignite their fires, before strong carries from Tom Hendrickson, Richard Capstick and Sam Skinner got them to within sight of the line, only for Sam Simmonds to spill the ball just as he looked set to score.
Undeterred, the Chiefs continued to plug away in attack and with a greater continuity starting to show in both their handling and their running, slowly they started to make inroads into the Irish 22. Strong work from the home pack got them to within sniffing distance of the line, before Witty took charge and drove powerfully over the whitewash to score.
It was just what the doctor ordered for Baxter and his players, given the turgid start they had made to the match, but things would get even better two minutes later when they claimed a second converted score.
Working the ball off a line-out wide on the left, Jack Maunder fed Henry Slade, whose wizardry in centre field sent the impressive Hendrickson galloping through the middle at a rate of knots. As the centre drew in the cover, he slipped a sumptuous pass into the grasp of Hogg, who did the rest with a slick and smart finish.
Sandy Park duly erupted – and rightly so – it was a thing of beauty!
Sadly, the Chiefs could not capitalise on their efforts and as half time drew ever closer, the two teams slugged out the dying embers like two prized heavyweights who had literally punched themselves out.
Indeed, the closest the Chiefs came to adding to their advantage was when No.8 Simmonds was deemed held up on the line following a series of pick-and-go drives.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 14 LONDON IRISH 14
Up against the elements for the second period, the Chiefs again started slowly as Irish came out firing with a gutsy opening blast.
Sustained pressure quickly had the home side on the back foot and with six minutes elapsed, it was Irish who regained the lead when they probed left, then right, fashioning the opening out wide for Van Rensburg to claim his first try for the club.
If that was a soft score, Irish’s bonus point effort – which arrived on 50 minutes – was even worse, Loader worming his way in off the flank to collect possession, before doing little to find his way under the posts for the try, converted by the boot of the reliable Jackson.
Just as it was in the first half, the Chiefs found themselves down by two scores and in desperate need of a pick-me-up. Once again, they used the deficit to kick themselves into life, but this time they found the line-speed and the sheer determination of their rivals much tougher to break down.
The usual power play of the Exeter eight deep inside the opposition 22 seemed solid enough, but just as it looked as though Witty had stolen over for his second of the afternoon, the intervention of the officials spoilt his celebrations, an earlier knock-on ruling out his latest effort.
Irish duly made the most of the let-off, working their way out of defence and back into attack, where the introduction of replacement Ben White gave them a real livewire option around the base of rucks.
And it was the scrum-half who scanned the field smartly, noticing a shortage of home defenders on the blind-side that allowed him to send the dangerous Hassell-Collins clear of the cover and over for a fifth Irish score.
Baxter emptied his bench in a bid to find some fresh potency in attack, but Irish remained miserly in defence, halting the ‘Men in Black’ at every opportunity. That was until 13 minutes from time when Nowell picked up possession midway inside the visitors half and slalomed his way to the line with one of his trademark breaks.
Skipper Slade converted to ensure maximum reward, but still there was plenty for the Chiefs to do in their quest to salvage something from their afternoon of toil.
Try as they may, the Chiefs huffed and puffed late on, but it was never going to blow the Exiles over in a meaningful manner. Instead, the visitors soaked up the very best that their rivals could throw at them, manfully seeing out the contest to claim a rare win in the Westcountry.
Chiefs: S Hogg; J Nowell, H Slade (capt), T Hendrickson, T O’Flaherty (O Devoto 62); J Simmonds (H Skinner 51), J Maunder (S Hidalgo-Clyne 51); B Moon (A Hepburn 47), J Yeandle (J Innard 47), S Nixon (H Williams 47); W Witty (S Lonsdale 64), J Hill; S Skinner (D Armand 62), R Capstick, S Simmonds.
Tries – Witty, Hogg, Nowell; Conversions – J Simmonds (2), Slade
Irish: T Parton; B Loader, C Rona, T Hepetema (B Van Rensburg h/t), O Hassell-Collins; P Jackson, N Phipps (B White 52); W Goodrick-Clarke (A Dell 64), A Creevy (M Wilemese 17), O Hoskins (M van der Merwe 59); S Mafi (G Nott 64), R Simmons; M Rogerson (capt), T Pearson (J Cooke 76), A Tuisue. Replacement (not used): R Jennings.
Tries – Creevy, Rona, Van Rensburg, Loader, Hassell-Collins; Conversions – Jackson (4)
Referee: H Smales