Like a saloon car that has driven through too much floodwater in recent weeks, Exeter Chiefs coughed and spluttered yesterday but ended up firing on at least one cylinder. They ended a depressing run of five Aviva Premiership defeats, and though their position in the table has not changed, they are primed for their assault on the LV= Cup next weekend and, beyond that, a late-season charge on European qualification.
That is more than London Irish can aspire to. This was the first occasion this season that they failed to score, and Brian Smith, their director of rugby, acknowledged that he has made too great a demand on the same players over the past four Premiership games. He is operating with a small squad and, at this time of year, minor injuries become major ones with the stress and strain of competition.
It will be some consolation that Marland Yarde came through intact. This was the England wing’s first full game for three months and he received a stern physical examination of the hip injury which has kept him out. Exeter kept him bottled up from start to finish but Yarde will have derived confidence from mere survival: “He showed he’s back, that he has the appetite,” Smith said.
“Today wasn’t a great surface for a back-three player but he was with England last Thursday and if they have injuries, I’m sure he’ll be in contention.” If that applies to Yarde, how much more does it apply to Tom Johnson, Exeter’s willing flanker? England had no specialist flanker on the bench against Ireland and may find Johnson’s ability to play across the back row of value against Wales next weekend.
Apart from his usual industry, at the breakdown, as a support player and at an occasionally malfunctioning line-out, Johnson won the high ball which set up Exeter’s second try and made sure the match was well beyond the Irish.
He was the heartbeat of a young side in which Luke Cowan-Dickie was making his first Premiership start at hooker and came off with flying colours. His throwing to the line-out may be a work in progress but his pace about the field and his hooking skills will take him far. “There’s stuff to work on but the ability is there,” Rob Hunter, the Exeter forwards coach, said.
As a whole, though, the game never developed fluidity. There were more stoppages for penalties and set-pieces than in most games this season and Henry Slade, Exeter’s fly-half, kicked more frequently than Exeter are prone to do. But the Chiefs needed a win of any kind to reverse an unfortunate trend and they were helped by yellow cards for Leo Halavatau, the visiting prop, in the first half, and Darren Allinson, the scrum-half, in the second.
That said, Ben White was slightly fortunate to see only yellow for a tip tackle on Allinson which might have cost Exeter dear. But the Irish could not take advantage of his absence and, just before his return, Exeter scored their second try. Two penalties by Slade were the only scores of the first half, though a gilt-edged try went begging when Ian Whitten broke clear but failed to see Luke Arscott screaming up in support.
However, Arscott’s pass, after good work on the left by Whitten and White, gave Phil Dollman the first try two minutes into the second half. The second came from Shane Geraghty’s kick won by Johnson, from which Exeter spread the ball, Slade and Matt Jess giving Whitten the chance to stretch through Alex Lewington’s tackle and score.
Exeter Chiefs: L Arscott; M Jess (F Vainikolo, 77), I Whitten, P Dollman, T James (Vainikolo, 23-24); H Slade (G Steenson, 77), D Lewis (H Thomas, 69); B Moon (C Rimmer, 71), L Cowan-Dickie (G Bateman, 69), H Tui (A Brown, 65), D Mumm (captain), D Welch (D Armand, 32-34, 69), T Johnson (K Horstmann, 71), B White (sin bin 58-69), D Ewers.
London Irish: T Ojo; A Lewington, E Sheridan, J O’Connor, M Yarde; S Geraghty, D Allinson (sin bin 77); J Yapp (M Parr, 52), D Paice, L Halavatau (sin bin 21-31; Yapp, 65), G Skivington (captain), N Rouse (I Gough, 61), K Low (J Sinclair, 52), B Cowan (M Mayhew, 74), O Treviranus (M Parr, 24-31; G Ellis, 58).
Referee: M Carley (Kent).