This may not have been the rugby Exeter Chiefs wanted to play as sullen, rain-filled clouds cloaked the West Country, but it was certainly the result they wanted. A convincing victory, combined with the failure of Bath at the Twickenham Stoop, pushed them up to sixth place in the Aviva Premiership and into the Heineken Cup qualifying place they covet.
"You have to fight for it, but with four wins out of five, and that one loss by three points to Leicester, we feel we're playing pretty well," said Rob Baxter, the Exeter head coach. "For us the season is very much alive. It was a bit like getting through a cup semi-final today, with a cup final to come [against Wasps] next weekend."
They maintained an iron grip on any aspirations with which the Irish arrived. The Exiles established a potential try-scoring position once in each half but on both occasions, their driving maul was virtually stillborn, so well did Exeter defend. Otherwise there was none of the rhythm with which the Irish seek to play the game and they will be duly grateful if Northampton beat London Welsh today and make them safe.
The one positive element for Irish was the return, after four-and-a-half months away, of Alex Corbisiero. The England loosehead prop damaged a knee playing against South Africa last November, played against New Zealand the following weekend and then required an operation to clear out floating matter. He has not trained much with the Irish (whom he leaves for Northampton in the summer) but his 40 minutes yesterday will be scrutinised carefully.
"Corbs would be happy to get some game time but he still has an issue with the knee, it has to be managed," Brian Smith, the Exiles' director of rugby, said. Since Corbisiero was required earlier than expected when the hard-working Max Lahiff hurt his right foot, Smith will assess his front-row options this week and England, with a summer tour to Argentina in mind, will hope for good news.
Exeter, expecting the wind and rain to die during the afternoon, took advantage of the conditions in the first half but did not make as much use of them as they hoped. Four penalties by Gareth Steenson, against one from Tom Homer, left the visitors reasonably optimistic at the break, particularly since Exeter's handling let them down when in the opposition 22. But the Irish ploy of playing four locks in their pack came to grief against a strong scrummaging effort from Exeter. Steenson added another penalty soon after the interval and Exeter's forwards took control.
First they rolled a driving maul 20 metres before Steenson tapped on an overhead pass for Matt Jess to score in the corner. With time running out, Henry Slade, the young Exeter fly-half, nearly scored with his first touch but the try fell to Dave Ewers, the flanker squeezing his way over after a series of forward assaults on the Irish line. With Tom Johnson, the England flanker, on the verge of a return after recovering from knee-ligament damage, Exeter are poised for a grandstand finish to the season.
Exeter L Arscott; J Nowell, P Dollman (I Whitten, 71), J Shoemark, M Jess; G Steenson (H Slade, 76), H Thomas (W Chudley, 72); B Sturgess (C Rimmer, 58), J Yeandle (C Whitehead, 72), H Tui (C Mitchell, 63), D Mumm, D Welch (A Muldowney, 67), B White (D Ewers, 58), R Baxter (capt), J Scaysbrook.
London Irish T Homer (A Watson, 71); T Ojo (M Yarde, 52), G Armitage, S Geraghty, S Tagicakibau; I Humphreys, D Allinson; M Lahiff (A Corbisiero, 24; Halavatau, 65), D Paice (S Lawson, 52), L Halavatau (H Aulika, 41), G Skivington (capt), B Evans (K Low, 76), M Garvey, O Treviranus, J Sinclair (J Gibson, 63).
Referee: M Fox (Leicestershire).
Tries: Jess, Ewers
Pens: Steenson 5
Pens: Homer, Humphreys