When Brian Smith quits London Irish at the end of this Premiership campaign – the Australian is returning to Sydney, where he is likely to find himself coaching at Super 15 level sooner rather than later – the rugby director will leave behind him a club in a funny kind of place. There were moments yesterday when the Exiles played well enough to beat teams a whole lot higher in the league than Exeter, and there were times when they did everything in their power to present the West Countrymen with the spoils, wrapped up in a gift box with a pretty pink bow on top.
The fact that Smith’s side prevailed with the last kick of the contest – a perfectly struck drop goal from Shane Geraghty, who, not for the first time this term, reminded all those with eyes to see that he has more playmaking ability in the little toe of his standing foot than most of England’s outside-halves put together – could not disguise the fact that this is a team struggling to find itself. Unsurprisingly, given the fact that the former England attack coach returned to London Irish in 2012 with the express intention of creating some much-needed stability, this is a source of frustration to him.
Yet Smith has kept the Exiles in the elite echelon of domestic rugby when they might easily have gone the way of Worcester, who were significantly better supported and far better financed when they dropped into the second-tier Championship last spring. No coach - not even a reincarnated Carwyn James, with Bob Dwyer and Graham Henry as chief lieutenants – would have challenged for honours with so many high-end players, from Anthony Watson and Marland Yarde to Matt Garvey and Jamie Gibson, disappearing through the “out” door for more attractive jobs elsewhere.
It may well be that Smith leaves just as some proper squad-building investment comes on tap: now that the club’s expensive new training complex in the south-western reaches of the capital is up and running, it is just possible that the money men will throw some cash in the direction professional coaches prefer it to be spent. If so, he will see the irony for what it is and live with it. After all, the sunshine in Sydney is just a little more reliable than it is in Sunbury-on-Thames.
He seemed happy enough yesterday, although he wore the look of a man who had been through the mill forwards, backwards and in every other way imaginable. Irish scored four tries, two of them straight off the training field – a 12-man driving maul effort finished by the flanker Blair Cowan; a bold, precisely executed line-out routine featuring David Paice and Ofisa Treviranus that resulted in a clattering five-pointer for Tom Guest – and two of the off-the-cuff variety, in which Geraghty played a starring role. His long pass off the left hand was key in the build-up to Alex Lewington’s excellent 48th-minute touchdown in the corner, while a much shorter delayed delivery to Cowan presented the Scotland international with his second.
So far, so enjoyable. But Smith also had to watch his back three commit horrible howlers in their own 22 and a number of forwards concede super-soft penalties that allowed Gareth Steenson to keep Exeter in the hunt from the kicking tee. Two of those sins, committed in quick succession, gave the visiting stand-off a sixth sighting of the sticks with something less than four minutes left on the clock. Needless to say, he hit the spot to give the Devonians a 26-25 lead they scarcely merited.
Happily for Smith, there was a twist in the tale. The Exiles, who had scrummaged pretty well, won a set-piece penalty in their own 22 deep inside the final minute, thereby giving themselves one last shot at redemption. Geraghty found a decent touch in the Exeter half, orchestrated a fiery attack off the line-out and then dropped back into the pocket to nail the drop-goal opportunity when it came. In truth, he did not look like missing, even for a split-second.
“It showed the strength, the courage and the character of the man,” Smith said. “Most teams would have tried to milk a penalty with that last move, because there aren’t many ball players who are prepared to step up for a drop under that kind of pressure. But I’ve been pointing out for a while that he’s a better player now than he was when he made his England appearances before the last World Cup. A lot of things came early to him, and pretty easily, because he was a prodigious talent, but he’s a mature leader now. I wouldn’t swap him for another playmaker in the league.”
Exeter, restricted to close-range heavy-mob tries by Dean Mumm and Dave Ewers, are tender right now: they have now lost four league games on the bounce and seen their top-four ambitions badly dented. If they were expecting sympathy from their hosts, however, they were barking up the wrong forest.
“It’s a coach’s job to bring relevance to every contest and it’s not always easy when you’re in our position in the league,” Smith said, “but it wasn’t too difficult this time: losing to Exeter down there in October was where things started to go awry for us, so it was an easy hook. They put four tries past us that day and celebrated pretty hard, which didn’t go unnoticed. It hurt.” Yesterday, the hurt was elsewhere.
Scorers: London Irish – Tries Cowan 2, Lewington, Guest; Conversion Geraghty; Penalty Homer; Drop goal Geraghty. Exeter – Tries Mumm, Ewers; Conversions Steenson 2; Penalties Steenson 4.
London Irish: A Fenby (T Homer 54); T Ojo, F Mulchrone (M Dorrian 68), E Griffin, A Lewington; S Geraghty, S Steele (T O’Leary 54); T Court (M Parr 64), D Paice, H Aulika (G Cross 48), G Skivington (capt), N Rouse (D Leo 61), T Guest (K Low 57), B Cowan, O Treviranus.
Exeter: P Dollman; J Nowell, H Slade, S Hill, M Jess; G Steenson, W Chudley (H Thomas 57); C Rimmer, J Yeandle (L Cowan-Dickie 49), T Francis (M Low, h-t, B Moon 48), D Mumm (capt), D Welch, D Ewers, D Armand, T Waldrom.
Referee: D Richards (Berkshire).Reuse content