Exeter Chiefs hang on for first away win of the Premiership season
Exeter Chiefs captured their first Aviva Premiership away win of the season with a hard-fought 27-23 victory over London Irish in Reading.
The Devon outfit stormed into a 21-3 lead after only 18 minutes yesterday, but the hosts battled their way back into the game to lead 23-21 early in the second half.
However, two penalties from the deadly boot of Irish fly-half Gareth Steenson, who amassed 17 points in the game, secured a win that lifts Exeter into sixth place in the table, only five points behind leaders Harlequins.
Madejski Stadium has not been a happy hunting ground for the Chiefs in the past, and on their previous two Premiership visits they had paid for making a slow start.
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However, that was certainly not the case yesterday as, refreshed following a two-week break from action, their frontline players roared into attack from the off.
They took the lead after only four minutes when 19-year-old Jack Nowell – handed his first Premiership start – dealt well with a high, hanging kick, and Steenson fed the ball to winger Matt Jess. He cut the line and linked with centre Phil Dollman, who thought about a return pass, but instead the Welshman reached the line himself.
Steenson missed the difficult touchline conversion, but he struck two penalties in the next seven minutes – the first following a fine break by scrum-half Haydn Thomas, and the second after Irish flanker Jamie Gibson had not released Exeter skipper Tom Hayes in the tackle.
Irish got a foothold in the game with a penalty by very impressive fly-half Ian Humphreys, punishing a high tackle on loose-head prop Max Lahiff, but Steenson's boot added three more points to push Exeter 14-3 ahead after only 15 minutes.
The visitors then took the game by the scruff of the neck when more great work by Thomas and Jess sent in full-back Luke Arscott for his second league try of the season, and Steenson's conversion made it 21-3.
Irish, who had eight players away on international duty and a further eight out injured, were left reeling by the Chiefs' explosive start, but some loose play by Exeter as the weather conditions deteriorated allowed them a route back into the game.
Humphreys kicked a penalty after Australian flanker Dean Mumm was adjudged to have deliberately knocked on, and, on the half-hour mark, giant Tongan tight-head prop Leo Halavatau was driven over following a five-metre line-out, and, with Humphreys slotting the extras, Irish suddenly trailed by only eight points, and 21-13 to Exeter was how it remained at the break.
The first score in the second half was going to be crucial, and it went Irish's way when, with referee Llyr Apgeraint-Roberts playing a penalty advantage, Humphreys' crossfield kick was touched down in the corner by former England winger Topsy Ojo, and another superb Humpheys conversion put Irish within one point of the Chiefs.
Three minutes later, Exeter had to stomach the fact they had let an 18-point lead slip away as Humphreys smashed over a wonderful 52-metre penalty for Arscott not releasing the ball in the tackle, and Irish had the lead for the first time in the game at 23-21.
However, Exeter refused to let their heads drop, and Steenson's penalty, after great work at a scrum by New Zealand Maori prop Hoani Tui, enjoying his first Premiership action of the season after a hamstring injury, edged the Devon side back in front.
Full-back Tom Homer, taking over the kicking duties from Humphreys after he picked up an injury, missed two penalty chances, from 30 and 55 metres, as Exeter clung on to their advantage, and it appeared game over for the hosts when Nowell showed great confidence for someone so young to kick the ball over the last defender and win the 45-metre race for the touchdown. The referee signalled a try, but after consulting with touch judge Roy Maybank – who moments earlier had inexplicably given a scrum penalty against Tui when Lahiff had clearly lost his bind – England Under-20 ace Nowell was deemed to have knocked on in the process of scoring.
It was a huge call by the officials, but it did not matter. In the final minute, Irish were caught offside from Darren Allinson's box kick, and Steenson knocked over the 30-metre penalty to seal Exeter's first Premiership victory on the road since they beat Worcester on April 14.