Irish 12 Chiefs 31
London Irish 12
Exeter Chiefs 31
Mark Stevens at the Brentford Community Stadium
Exeter’s crown jewel Sam Simmonds continued his dazzling season after the free-scoring Chiefs No.8 tonight wrote his way into the Premiership Rugby history books.
His try treble not only saw him overtake Christian Wade’s top-flight record, but he added two to the new tally as he took his seasonal haul so far to that of 19.
The fact he still has three more games in the regular season not only underlines his sheer brilliance but, at the same time, he could well extend his new record to untouchable levels.
Against hosts London Irish, he was again the star turn for Rob Baxter’s side, whose victory also ensured them of a sixth successive appearance in the end of season play-offs.
Back in second spot, nine adrift of leaders Bristol Bears, now the task for the Chiefs is to secure home advantage in the last four on June 19.
Simmonds claimed his second hat-trick of the season, whilst there were further touchdowns for Tom O’Flaherty and younger brother Joe, who also slotted three conversions on the night.
Irish, it’s fair to say, played their part in an entertaining encounter, watched by a crowd of almost 4,000 socially-distanced fans. Welcoming back supporters for the first time this season, they rewarded the majority with scores for Ben Donnell and Ben Loader, one of which was converted by fly-half Paddy Jackson.
It was, however, nowhere near enough to halt the Devonians, who appear to be getting better by the game as the season draws towards a pulsating climax.
Having seen Sale Sharks once again leapfrog them into second spot following their win at Bath, Baxter’s side knew all too well the importance of this latest trip to the capital.
Looking to pick up from where they left off against Worcester Warriors last time out, Baxter made a number of changes with Ben Moon, Harry Williams and Jannes Kirsten added up front, whilst behind there was a welcome return to action for Wales and British Lions winger Alex Cuthbert.
Irish, meanwhile, were virtually at full-strength and with a gulf of international talent loaded in their ranks, it was a lively opening to the game from both sides at the state-of-the-art Brentford Community Stadium.
Both sides tore into each other from the outset, but it was the visitors who were first to strike. Just eight minutes had elapsed when great work at the breakdown from Jacques Vermeulen won his side a penalty just inside his own half.
Henry Slade - as he does - launched a left footer to within striking distance of the home line, after which the Chiefs pack - with Luke Cowan-Dickie as the tail gunner - started to maul their way towards the whitewash.
Although the England hooker was floored just shy of the line, the cavalry was close at hand as Vermeulen, then Sam Simmonds, powered towards the line. Aided on his way, there was no stopping the No.8 as he touched down.
Referee Christophe Ridley was unsure as to the grounding, but following checks with the TMO, the score - converted by younger brother Joe -was awarded, leaving the newly-named Lion just one shy of the top-flight try record.
Irish, though, drew level within five minutes. Strong forward play saw them drive hard into the Exeter 22, the fruits of which saw No.8 Albert Tuisue and then Donnell craft the opening for the latter to claim the score, converted by Jackson.
It was just reward for the home side who were offering plenty, but with issues at scrum time, they were gifting possession and territory back to the Chiefs. Using a free-kick to send up a ‘high bomb’, it was the chase from O’Flaherty that allowed the visitors to regain possession.
With time and space, they went right, then left, where skipper Joe Simmonds was waiting to receive possession. Sizing up what was ahead of him, the classy playmaker spotted a mis-match between himself and home prop Lovejoy Chatawama, before scorching through the gap and over in the right-hand corner.
The Simmonds Brothers were seemingly ruling the roost, but they weren’t done there. Indeed, it was Sam who provided the record-breaking moment on 24 minutes. He applied the all-important finish after the impressive Sean Lonsdale teamed up with Cowan-Dickie to set-up the opening from a close-range, tap penalty.
Irish, though, continued to offer up decent resistance and with half time fast closing in, they reduced the deficit once more when Jackson’s precision cross-field kick was gobbled up by Ollie Hassell-Collins, who in turn offered a sumptuous offload for Loader to cross.
HALF TIME LONDON IRISH 12 EXETER CHIEFS 19
With little to choose between the two at the turn, it was the Chiefs who were again quickest out of the traps on the resumption. With Irish in attack, Slade’s clever intercept helped release Cuthbert on the burst.
As the Welshman cantered down the right flank, he looked on course to grab Exeter’s bonus point score. However, home full-back Ben Parton had other ideas, producing a turn of speed that allowed him to haul down the winger in his prime.
Irish may have survived that threat, but when the Chiefs came knocking again just minutes later, this time there was to be no reprieve. A speculative cross-field kick from Joe Simmonds didn’t appear to be causing too much danger, but Loader inadvertently tried to shepherd the ball over the try-line.
Little did the home winger know, opposite number O’Flaherty was in hot pursuit, eventually stretching out his own arm to claim the vital touchdown behind the line. Loader could only hang his head in shame, whilst O’Flaherty was mobbed by his team-mates for scoring the bonus point try.
If that was the highlight for O’Flaherty, the Londoner blotted his copybook shortly after when he was shown yellow for taking Parton out in the air. In truth, it was a tough call for the Exeter man, whose eyes did not deviate from the night sky.
Although the natives called for the strictest of sanctions, thankfully referee Ridley saw the matter as it was - a rugby incident - and he was sidelined for just the ten minutes.
In his absence, team-mate Jack Maunder didn’t brilliantly to cover another Jackson cross-field kick intended for Parton. Mission complete, O’Flaherty returned to the fray just in time to see Sam Simmonds bag his third.
Working the ball from left to right, the visitors cut open the Irish defence to release Cuthbert once again. Drawing in the cover, the winger - who could easily have scored himself - unselfishly offloaded to the ‘Ginger Ninja’ who dived over in the corner for the converted score.
Job done for the night, all that was left for Baxter’s side to do was to see if they could add to their tally. And, with just over a minute left, they thought they had done it when O’Flaherty touched down again.
Ridley initially awarded the try, but following numerous howls of appeal, it was again sent for checking with the TMO, Sean Davey. After a lengthy debate, the ruling went against the Chiefs. It mattered not.
For Baxter and his team, they had once again delivered in the capital. Now, they will be hoping their next visit to this manor proves equally triumphant, just as it did back in October at HQ.
Irish: T Parton (J Stokes 68); B Loader (J Atkins 72), C Rona, P Cokanasiga, O Hassell-Collins; P Jackson, N Phipps (N Groom 31); W Goodrich-Clarke (F Gigena 62), A Creevy (M Cornish 61), L Chawatama (O Hoskins 45); C Munga (G Nott 45), R Simmonds; M Rogerson (capt), B Donnell (G Nott 30-40, S O’Brien 54), A Tuisue.
Tries - Donnell, Loader; Conversion - Jackson
Chiefs: S Hogg; A Cuthbert (H Skinner 72), H Slade, O Devoto (I Whitten 68), T O’Flaherty; J Simmonds (capt), J Maunder (S Townsend 62); B Moon (A Hepburn 49), L Cowan-Dickie (J Yeandle 58), H Williams (T Francis 49); J Kirsten, S Lonsdale; D Ewers, J Vermeulen (T Price 72), S Simmonds (R Capstick 72).
Tries - S Simmonds (3), J Simmonds, O’Flaherty; Conversions - J Simmonds (3)
Yellow Card: O’Flaherty
Referee: C Ridley