These are the dog days that all newcomers to the elite must go through. Exeter, though beaten at home for the first time in the Premiership this season, took a losing bonus point from the club now enjoying life at the top of the table.
Moreover they did so in front of a record crowd on a weekend when Premiership attendance figures took something of a dive. Had Ryan Lamb not been on top form with the boot, kicking four penalty goals from four attempts, it is conceivable that Exeter would have come away with a draw to go with their September wins against Gloucester and Newcastle.
London Irish will take this win on its merits. They are all too aware of the pitfalls of life at the top, at home or in Europe. The composure they have gathered helped them through a game littered with errors, including a second-half period when they played with 14 men after Delon Armitage had been sent to the sin-bin.
Armitage's offence was a wild, high tackle on Andrew Higgins but that should not detract from another sound defensive game from a man who is eager to reclaim a place in England's squad for the November internationals. If the full-back could not make theimpact, ball in hand, that he wanted, credit should go to Exeter's well-organised defence, which denied the space such penetrating runners as Armitage, Topsy Ojo and Sailosi Tagicakibau enjoy.
"It was one of those games where set-piece possession determined whether you could get on the front foot," Toby Booth, the London Irish head coach, said. For long periods, Exeter's scrum had the upper hand. Gareth Steenson's two first-half penalties came when Alex Corbisiero took the front row down, and when the Irish collapsed an Exeter rolling maul.
But the visiting line-out came to dominate in a way that is foreign to Exeter. Tom Hayes and James Hanks have operated well all season but they made little headway against Nick Kennedy, Bob Casey and Kieran Roche. Peter Kimlin, the Australia lock who is with Exeter on a short-term contract, will allow them to give Hayes and Hanks a well-earned rest.
"We were disappointed by some of our mistakes but if you have that endeavour, that determination to play well, we can't be unhappy," Rob Baxter, Exeter's head coach, said. "We needed more ball in the second half to see that game off but we have taken something from it, that's the important thing."
A point allowed Exeter to preserve a modicum of space between themselves and Newcastle in 11th while Irish returned to the top after losing ground to Saracens. Exeter's primary concern will be the health of Steenson, who was helped off with a damaged left leg. He may require a scan tomorrow.
Within a minute of replacing Steenson, Ryan Davis kickedExeter into the lead. Steenson and Lamb had exchanged blow for blow before the interval, though Baxter would have been frustrated that his players conceded an unnecessary penalty in the last seconds of the first half which allowed Lamb to make it 6-6.
Davis, behind a retreating pack, did well (Haydn Thomas did even better to clear up messy possession) to drop a goal from nearly 40 metres. Irish, having survived Armitage's absence, then drove into the home 22. Lamb's wide ball would have given Armitage a try had the full-back not knocked on.
Irish increased the pressure through the presence of their back row and when Exeter offended at a ruck, Lamb kicked his side level from 27 metres. An offside offence with no more than five minutes left gave Lamb a longer kick but he never looked like missing.
"We have targeted a number of points from the next few games and we got one today," Baxter said. "Now we have to go out for the others. We're still on track for where we want to be and this is becoming a difficult place for other clubs to come and play." London Irish would endorse that.
Exeter Chiefs L Arscott; A Higgins, P Dollman, B Rennie (S Naqelevuki, 66), M Foster; G Steenson (R Davis, 61), H Thomas; B Sturgess, N Clark (C Whitehead, 3-9; 72), C Budgen (H Tui, 57), T Hayes (capt), J Hanks (P Kimlin, 69), T Johnson, R Baxter (C Slade, 72), J Scaysbrook.
London Irish D Armitage; T Ojo, S Mapusua, D Bowden, S Tagicakibau; R Lamb, P Hodgson; C Dermody (capt), D Paice (J Buckland, 54), A Corbisiero (F Rautenbach, 54), N Kennedy, R Casey (M Garvey, 61), K Roche, G Stowers, C Hala'Ufia (K Low, 76).
Referee W Barnes (London).Reuse content