Exeter, like most Premiership clubs, find winning on the road as precious as petrol. But the Chiefs have been the exception to another rule, the one that says what goes up must go down. They came up at the end of last season and they are staying up, at least for the foreseeable future.
As for London Irish, they began the season by not knowing how to lose and then, in the shake of a lamb's tail, forgot how to win. Things have levelled off since and despite the run of 10 defeats which ruined their Christmas, they are hunting down a place in the play-offs. This impressive victory enhanced their prospects.
Exeter, for all their doggedness, found the Exiles' Armitage brothers, Delon the full-back and Steffon the flanker, a double handful. They scored three of Irish's four tries and Delon was named as the man of the match. It was a timely return to form for the former England full-back, who has his eyes set on a place in Martin Johnson's squad for the World Cup.
The bonus-point win went down very well at the Madejski Stadium, which drew a crowd in excess of 20,000 – just – for a match that Irish described, belatedly, as a St Patrick's Day party. But then, it was their first game here for a month.
Exeter had barely alighted from their coach when they conceded a try. Delon Armitage, returning from an eight-week ban for abusing an official, capitalised on some useful work by the half-backs, Paul Hodgson and Daniel Bowden. The latter's chip was seized upon by the full-back and the touchdown was timed at 39 seconds.
While suspended, the older Armitage spent some time training with England – it was evidently time well spent. Five minutes after his opener he was off again, from inside his own 22, on one of his trademark hazy, mazy runs. He might have wrong-footed eight defenders, some of them more than once, before setting up a ruck close to the Exeter line. From there, Steffon Armitage was driven over. Tom Homer's conversion put Irish 12-0 up.
Homer kicked two penalties in the first half to one by Gareth Steenson but from 18-3 down, Exeter, who didn't get to where they are today by lying down, came back into it. The prop Chris Budgen smashed over from a ruck and early in the second half Steenson kicked three penalties to make it 18-17.
However, the referee Greg Garner, having signalled a try for Matt Jess that would have put the Chiefs in the lead, changed his mind and ordered a scrum instead. Then there was another blow for Exeter when the flanker James Scaysbrook, who had earlier torn Nick Kennedy's scrum cap from his head, was sent to the sin-bin. Irish turned the screw, David Paice and Steffon Armitage scoring tries and Delon Armitage being held up on the line. Homer the goalkicker kicked three more penalties and a conversion.
London Irish D Armitage; T Ojo, E Seveali'i, S Mapusua, T Homer; D Bowden, P Hodgson (D Allinson, 66); C Dermody (capt), J Buckland (D Paice, 48) F Rautenbach (A Corbisiero, 48), N Kennedy, B Casey (G Johnson, 20), J Gibson, G Stowers, S Armitage.
Exeter Chiefs L Arscott; M Jess (N Nadolo, 60), J Shoemark, S Naqelevuki, N Sestaret; G Steenson, H Thomas (J Poluleuligaga, 24), B Sturgess, N Clark, C Budgen (H Tui, 60), T Hayes (capt), J Hanks (C Slade, 19), T Johnson, R Baxter, J Scaysbrook.
Referee G Garner (Warwickshire).
Tries: D Armitage, S Armitage 2, Paice
Cons: Homer 2
Pens: Homer 5
Pens: Steenson 4