Chiefs 37 Irish 7
Exeter Chiefs 37
London Irish 7
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
After the gloom of Gloucester, it didn’t take long for Exeter Chiefs to rediscover their winning formula.
Undone on Week One of the season at Kingsholm, Week Two saw normal service resumed for Rob Baxter’s side as they swept aside the challenge of newly-promoted London Irish at Sandy Park.
Devon’s finest rediscovered their mojo in emphatic style, running in five tries, whilst producing an equally impressive defensive showing that limited the Exiles to just a solitary second half score through winger Alex Lewington.
In attack, the Chiefs were sharp enough. Centre Henry Slade set them on their way with the opening try, before a penalty try and a touchdown from man-of-the-match Don Armand gave them a 20-0 lead at the break.
And although Irish were much improved during the second period, the Chiefs put the seal on their display late on with converted tries for both Olly Woodburn and Armand again.
Having kicked off the season with defeat at Gloucester the previous week, it was an expectant crowd that welcomed the champions back on home soil for this encounter against the promoted Exiles.
Ahead of kick-off, Baxter recalled Tomas Francis, Mitch Lees and Dave Dennis to the home pack, while behind there was also a first start of the season for Exeter’s first-ever Lion, Jack Nowell, who was included on the right wing.
The Exiles, fresh from their opening day win against Harlequins in the second fixture of the London Double Header at Twickenham, were virtually unchanged with their sole change coming at centre where Italian international Luke McLean came into the side in place of Fergus Mulchrone.
With personnel in place, it was the Chiefs who blasted out of the traps. With conditions muggy overhead, there was nothing remotely gloomy about Baxter’s side as they set about laying siege on the Irish line.
An early five-metre drive was repelled well by the Irish pack, but there was no let-off on nine minutes when Gareth Steenson slotted a routine penalty after his opposite number, James Marshall, was pulled up for straying offside in midfield.
Just moments later and the home faithful had further reason to cheer, this time standing to applaud the game’s opening try. An off-the-top move from an Exeter line-out released the marauding Sam Simmonds and as the No.8 propelled forward at a rate of knots, he was able to offload to Slade, who was waiting on his shoulder. Still with a bit to do, the England international cantered his way to the finish line.
The Chiefs were dominating proceedings and they were closing to adding to their tally midway through the half. A quick line-out from Lees caught the visitors napping, Steenson and Slade combined, the latter of whom chipped the ball in behind to try and find Nowell. Although the Cornishman was motoring down the right flank, the punt had a little too much on it and eventually spilled into touch.
Irish’s let-off proved only momentary as the Black Wave continued to flow at high speed. Whereas the initial early five-metre drive was halted, this time Irish could not hold the home swell, illegally pulling it to the floor. Referee Craig Maxwell-Keys had no option but to award the obvious penalty try.
Just getting into the Exeter half was proving somewhat of a mission in itself for the Exiles, but the Chiefs were showing no mercy.
A slick handling move from the hosts saw Olly Woodburn come within a whisker of adding a third try, before the scoreboard operators were finally put to task again just before the break when Armand was the man on the end of another polished attacking move.
The Chiefs could well have added to their tally just before the break, but on this occasion Irish held firm under the bombardment.
HALF TIME: EXETER CHIEFS 20 LONDON IRISH 0
On the resumption and the Chiefs were again quickly into their stride, extending their lead inside six minutes through the boot of Steenson. The fly-half was on hand to administer a simple penalty after Simmonds had been taken out around the neck by Irish lock Franco van der Merwe.
Irish looked to respond almost immediately at the other end, but try as they may they could not find a way through the rock solid home defence. The steely form of the Chiefs was impressive, especially as they soaked up the pressure before turning defence into attack.
In the minutes that followed, Marshall was lucky to escape punishment for a late hit on Dollman, while Nowell was denied the chance of claiming Exeter’s fourth score when he spilt the ball in a quick counter-attack led by the all-action Simmonds.
Irish threw on fresh stock from the sidelines in a bid to inject some life into their play, but it was the Chiefs who continued to pose the greater threat. Fancy footwork from Nowell saw him escape the clutches of at least three rivals, but as he looked to chip over the top, he fired straight out on the full and the chance was lost.
The Men from Devon certainly had the bit between their teeth as they went in search of a fourth score, but either a combination of over exuberance in attack, the wet conditions or, more often than not, good defence from the Irish prevented their charge for the line.
Frustrated at their failure to exploit their pressure into points, the Chiefs were then guilty of taking their foot off the gas a little. In turn it allowed the Exiles to gain some territory and - in a spell of concerted pressure - they made the home side pay.
A maul five metres from the Exeter line was held well enough, but Irish replacement scrum-half Brendan McKibbin used his experience to take charge of proceedings, sniping from the back before shipping the ball to Lewington, who had the easiest of touchdowns in the corner. Full-back Bell kicked a majestic touchline conversion and the visitors were all of a sudden up and running.
Any hopes of a revival, however, were soon diminished as the Chiefs finished with a flourish. With just five minutes remaining on the clock, they wrapped up the bonus point when Woodburn was able to pick off a pass from McKibbin deep inside his own half, before turning on the after burners to scorch clear of the cover and touchdown with relative ease.
Steenson slotted the extras to that score and Exeter’s fifth try which arrived with the final play of the game. Using their pack to punch holes deep into the Irish line, a simple pick-and-go approach just yards out eventually allowed man of the match Armand to burrow his way over for his second of the contest.
Points secured and the natives more than happy, it’s onto Worcester this Friday where the Chiefs will be looking to follow up this opening victory of the season.
Exeter Chiefs: P Dollman; J Nowell, H Slade (L Turner 64), I Whitten (M Bodilly 77), O Woodburn; G Steenson, N White (S Townsend 65); B Moon (C Rimmer 54), J Yeandle (capt, E Taione 64), T Francis (H Williams 54), M Lees (S Skinner 61), J Hill; D Dennis (M Kvesic 64), D Armand, S Simmonds.
Tries - Slade, Penalty Try, Armand (2), Woodburn; Conversions - Penalty Try, Steenson (2); Penalties - Steenson (2)
London Irish: T Bell; A Lexington, C Hearn (A Tikoirotuma 69), L McLean, T Ojo; J Marshall, S Steele (B McKibbin 54); D Hobbs-Awoyemi (G Reid 51, D Hobbs-Awoyemi 69), D Paice (capt, D Porecki 51), P Du Plessis (B Franks 51); F van der Merwe (J McNally, 69), S De Chaves; M Coman, B Cowan, O Treviranus (C Gilsenan 56). Replacement (not used): G Tonks
Try - Lexington; Conversion - Bell
Referee: C Maxwell-Keys