It may only be February but Wasps, Newcastle and possibly Worcester are painfully aware that they have few opportunities for Premiership points in the months that remain. Every match of the seven each has left will be played amid high anxiety. The extraordinarily contentious decision by an assistant referee to advise a penalty against Wasps' inexperienced tighthead prop Simon McIntyre as his side attacked at a five-metre scrum in the last minute was as hurtful to the home side as the news that bottom-placed Newcastle had won.
Exeter's win moved them up to fourth. They had a run, decided those tactics were wrong in the rain and wind and stuck to a conservative game. In doing so they had to overcome losing four line-outs and conceding a number of scrum penalties in the second half to prevail with five kicks out of five by their fly-half, Ignacio Mieres.
Wasps, one place off the bottom and now six points clear of Newcastle, were in no way any more lavish. Constricted by a lack of confidence and unsure of Nicky Robinson's goal-kicking after an eighth-minute miss from short range, they shoed the leather off the ball until belatedly using the No 8 Billy Vunipola's running power. In some respects it worked: Matt Jess, Phil Dollman and Mieres all dropped high kicks to earn Wasps good field position.
In other ways, not. All the Wasps kickers were left-footers. A couple of penalties to touch by Robinson missed the target and Hugo Southwell kicked out on the full; grievous errors when every mistake was counting double. Mieres's three penalties to one by Robinson had Exeter 9-3 up at half-time. In similar fashion, the scoreline crabbed along to 15-12 with 15 minutes remaining.
Yet it was Robinson who, so bravely, went for maximum distance with a touch-finder on 73 minutes. The line-out, aimed for Richard Birkett, was nicked by Exeter's Tom Johnson. Then came the sequence of refereeing decisions that really got the goat of Wasps and their director of rugby, Dai Young.
The initial comfort of Exeter's scrum had vanished; they could do no right in the eyes of the referee, Dave Pearson, last seen scampering away from a frozen pitch in Paris when he was obliged to postpone the France v Ireland match. Bizarrely, though, when Pearson played advantage for Wasps winning a scrum penalty, it seemed to last no more than a phase or two at the most, when Robinson knifed through a gap.
"We were penalised for trying to play," grumbled Young, whose first season at Wasps has been short on luck, with a dozen players needing surgery in a squad already stripped of more than 20 internationals in the previous three years.
When Johnson tapped a defensive line-out over Exeter's line to concede a five-metre scrum it was the position Wasps – whose captain, Marco Wentzel, had wavered over allowing Robinson a 66th-minute kick to reduce the Exeter lead to three – had yearned for. Winning a penalty at the scrum, they went for the kill. Exeter threw on their gnarled Army corporal of a loosehead Chris Budgen, who turns 39 on Tuesday. In went the ball from Joe Simpson, and as the men in black rattled forward, Exeter's white shirts scattered.
"There must have been only two people in the whole stadium who thought it was a penalty to Exeter," said Young. "When the whistle went I thought it was certainly a penalty to us, if not a penalty try." But no. The flag man, Rhys Davies, said otherwise and Pearson's arm pointed in the direction of a club-record eighth straight league defeat for Wasps.
"We're a team full of character, aren't we?" said Rob Baxter, Exeter's head coach. "I'll take the win with both hands but it won't change anything. We started talking about this process [homing in on the top four] a few weeks ago."
If Wasps or Newcastle are relegated it will be the first time a former champion club have gone down. Wasps are up for sale and the accountants handling the bids, Baker Tilly, say there are four "serious" interested parties: a property-based UK group; another UK agent with a funder behind; and one each based in South Africa and Eastern Europe. Intriguingly, one of them already owns a football club. All are intending to keep Wasps in their catchment area to the west and north-west of London, rather than to take the Premiership shares that are among Wasps' few assets and relocate. Jim Clifford of Baker Tilly said: "We would hope to have settled on a preferred bidder in the next four to six weeks."
The drop from the Premiership may not be settled until Newcastle come to Adams Park on the last day of the season, 5 May.
London Wasps H Southwell; T Prydie, E Daly, D Waldouck, R Haughton (P Emerick, 21); N Robinson, N Berry (J Simpson, 18); Z Taulafo (T Payne, 54), T Lindsay (R Webber, 54), B Broster (S McIntyre, 40), E O'Donoghue (J Launchbury, 54), M Wentzel (capt), R Birkett, B Vunipola, J Poff (S Jones, 72).
Exeter Chiefs P Dollman; G Camacho, N Sestaret, J Shoemark,M Jess; I Mieres, H Thomas (K Barrett, 71); H Tui, N Clark(C Whitehead, 67), C Mitchell (J Andress, 60), T Hayes(capt), A Muldowney (J Phillips, 68), T Johnson, R Baxter,J Scaysbrook.
Referee D Pearson (Northumberland).
Pens: Robinson 4
Pens: Mieres 5