Irish 28 Chiefs 45
London Irish 28
Exeter Chiefs 45
Mark Stevens at the Madejski Stadium
It’s maybe a New Year, but it’s same old Exeter Chiefs.
Rob Baxter’s side consolidated their position at the top of the Gallagher Premiership, running in six tries to secure maximum reward from their first test of 2020.
London Irish proved decent opposition throughout, claiming a bonus point of their own through converted tries from Belgium Tuatagaloa, Albert Tuisue, Ollie Hassell-Collins and Steve Mafi, but it was the Chiefs who reigned supreme in Berkshire.
Centre Sam Hill led the way for the visitors with a brace of tries, while there were further scores for Dave Dennis, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Ollie Devoto and Stuart Townsend.
Gareth Steenson converted all six tries, as well as adding a late second half penalty, to put the seal on what was a dogged display from the Devonians.
Fresh from that victory over the defending champions Saracens the week previous, Baxter was forced into change ahead of kick-off. With Harry Williams suspended following his red card in that game, Argentinian prop Enrique Pieretto was handed his first-ever Premiership start at tight-head.
Other changes to the pack saw recalls for Jannes Kirsten and Don Armand, whilst behind the experienced Steenson and Hill were new additions to the back division.
Irish, meanwhile, also made changes to their side which went down to Worcester Warriors. Into the front-row came Saia Fainga’a and Ollie Hoskins, Tongan international Mafi added some bulk to their back-row, while at scrum-half, Ben Meehan got the nod over Nick Phipps.
With personnel in place, it was the Chiefs who wasted little time in setting out their attacking stall. Just five minutes had elapsed when a slick handling move saw Hill, Steenson, Jack Nowell and Stuart Hogg all combine to set-up Olly Woodburn just feet from the home line.
However, as the Chiefs flyer looked poised to pounce, he inadvertently spilled the ball and the chance was lost as Irish cleared down field.
Undeterred, the visitors came again just moments later and this time they didn’t fluff their lines, Hill bulldozing his way over under the posts after Pieretto had initially threatened with a close-range pick-and-go move. Steenson obliged with the simple conversion.
It was the ideal start for Baxter’s side, but the Exiles did well to hit back and they restored parity on 17 minutes when Tuatagaloa crossed in the right corner, finishing off a neat backs move from the hosts who were playing with advantage off a five-metre scrum.
To be fair, it was no more than Irish deserved during a spirited first quarter. However, as the half ticked by, it was the table-topping Chiefs who started to crank through their gears.
Having seemingly cruised through the first 20 minutes, the next 20 was pretty ruthless as they added three more tries to have the bonus point safely in the bag by the turn.
Skipper Dennis claimed the first of the treble, burrowing over from close range, before Cowan-Dickie followed suit, the England international working his way round off a five-metre line-out to drive over the whitewash.
The deadly boot of Steenson added the extras to that score and Exeter’s fourth, which arrived with the last play of the game. The Irishman instigated the move, sending a cross-field kick into the path of Nowell, whose simple offload released Devoto down the right. Still with plenty to do, the Chiefs centre stretched his legs like a prized thoroughbred to gallop over for the all-important fourth score. Steenson, like he does, banged over the testing touchline conversion to complete a decent first half for the visitors.
HALF TIME LONDON IRISH 7 EXETER CHIEFS 28
After a ruthless conclusion to the first half, the Chiefs re-emerged for the second period looking to inflict further misery. Irish had been stunned by the late onslaught and it took just two minutes for the visitors to pick up form where they left off.
Alec Hepburn’s surge gave them decent front foot ball, which they used to deadly effect, Steenson directing the back division to release Hill, who arched his way through the midfield to glide over untouched for a fifth converted score.
It was impressive stuff from the Chiefs, who were underlining their position as the division’s top dogs.
What followed, though, will not have impressed Baxter, who saw his side leak two quickfire tries. Tuisue claimed the first, the Fijian No.8 driven over from a well-constructed line-out drive, before winger Hassell-Collins made the most of some shoddy Exeter defending to claim their third score.
The double clearly ignited the home faithful, but there joy was soon doused as the Chiefs rallied once more to create a sixth score. Sam Simmonds, a thorn in the home side all afternoon, began proceedings before shipping a pass to Hill, whose clever offload allowed Townsend to race under the posts with virtually his first touch of the game.
Exeter were certainly in the box seat, but when they lost backs Woodburn and Devoto to yellow cards - both for deliberate knock-ons - all of a sudden Irish had a decent numerical advantage.
Like all good sides, they duly made their rivals pay, bagging a bonus point score of their own when they exploited the space out wide to send Mafi over for the try, again converted by Myler.
The Chiefs were momentarily on the ropes, but when they regrouped back deep inside the Irish half, they worked hard in attack to win a penalty, which Steenson duly dispatched to complete an unblemished afternoon with the boot.
Woodburn and Devoto returned to the fray for the dying embers, which the Chiefs masterfully saw out without trouble. Next up for them is a trip North of the Border, where a point at least at Glasgow Warriors, will ensure they advance into the last eight of Europe.
Irish: A Veitokani; B Tuatagaloa, C Rona, T Stephenson (B Campbell 61), O Hassell-Collins; S Myler (J Atkins 72), B Meehan (N Phipps 61); A Dell (H Elrington 67), S Fainga’a (D Porecki 57), O Hoskins (L Chawatama,67); F van der Merwe (capt), A Coleman (B Maddison 24); S Mafi, B Cowan (M Rogerson 57), A Tuisue.
Tries - Tuatagaloa, Tuisue, Hassell-Collins, Mafi; Conversions - Myler (4)
Chiefs: S Hogg; J Nowell (P Dollman 62), O Devoto, S Hill, O Woodburn; G Steenson, N White (S Townsend 54); A Hepburn (B Moon 57), L Cowan-Dickie (E Taione 43), E Pieretto (M Street 62); J Kirsten, D Dennis (capt, S Lonsdale 67); D Ewers (M Kvesic 57), D Armand, S Simmonds. Replacement: (not used): J Simmonds.
Tries - S Hill (2), Dennis, Cowan-Dickie, Devoto, Townsend; Conversions - Steenson (6); Penalty - Steenson
Yellow Cards: Woodburn, Devoto
Referee: C Ridley