London Irish give Chiefs the chop
October 23, 2010
London Irish's Ryan Lamb slots a kick at Sandy Park
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London Irish cemented their place at the top of the Aviva Premiership table with a hard-fought 12-9 victory over a brave Exeter Chiefs at Sandy Park.
Fly-half Ryan Lamb kicked four penalties to steer the Exiles to victory in a fiercely-contested clash in front of a vociferous 10,103 fans. Exeter fly-half Gareth Steenson kicked two penalties to keep the Chiefs in touch at the break and a drop goal from replacement Ryan Davis put his side on course for victory before Irish's clinical late rally.
The battling display illustrated Exeter's growing maturity but their exemplary work-rate could not prevent their first home defeat of the season with a losing bonus point their only reward. In contrast, London Irish's ability to weather a ferocious storm and maintain their composure underlined their class and undoubted title credentials.
A fired-up Exeter were determined to make their mark and Steenson threatened to carve Irish open before flanker James Scaysbrook and scrum-half Haydn James combined well at a lineout to drive the visitors back onto their own line. The Chiefs were unable to unlock the Exiles' defence but were rewarded for their endeavour with a penalty that Steenson shanked wide of the target.
Exeter continued to pepper the Irish defence and while fullback Delon Armitage was an assured presence under the high ball, the pressure drew some uncharacteristic errors from the rest of his backline. But the Chiefs' eagerness to unsettle Irish saw them drift offside on the quarter hour and Lamb opened the scores with the penalty. Tempers boiled over midway through the half after a minor victory for the hosts at scrum time and Steenson rediscovered his form from the kicking tee.
There was no let-up in the physicality of the contest with no quarter given on either side although the hosts could boast a significant success rate at the scrum. The Chiefs' work rate continued to engage the capacity home crowd and the Exiles' attempts to adopt their usual free-flowing game were thwarted by some excellent pressure from the home side.
The Chiefs' pack were awarded another hard-earned penalty as half-time approached with veteran tight-head Chris Budgen showered in plaudits by his team-mates. And having kicked to the corner for the lineout the whistle soon went in their favour again with Steenson edging his side ahead with his second penalty.
Lamb led the Exiles' riposte with a superbly threaded kick to touch inside the Exeter 22 and lock Nick Kennedy then stole the lineout before the Chiefs infringed in their attempts to snuff out the danger. Irish opted for a kick at the posts and Lamb levelled the scores before the sides headed to the tunnel.
An athletic interception by Exeter lock Tom Johnson at the start of the second half sparked crowd-pleasing break and Irish were forced into a rearguard action to deal with the danger. But Steenson's boot continued to probe the visitors with a cross-kick evading winger Mark Foster as it skidded on the now rain-soaked surface.
A brilliant tackle from Exeter centre Bryan Rennie then shackled Irish winger Sailosi Tagicakibau before a high tackle from Armitage took Chiefs winger Andrew Higgins down and prompted a yellow card from referee Wayne Barnes. Exeter struggled to make the most of their numerical advantage and Armitage eventually returned with no damage to the scoreboard in his absence.
And back to full strength the visitors raised the tempo with the aim of asserting themselves and taking control of the game. Flanker Chris Hala'ufia and No.8 George Stowers took the direct route but Exeter showed few signs of fatigue with Rennie setting the standard in terms of commitment while Steenson received treatment for a knee injury that would end his involvement in the game. His replacement Davis made an immediate impact with a sweetly-struck drop goal after a powerful drive from the Chiefs' pack.
Back came Irish with winger Topsy Ojo skipping into the Exeter 22 before his forwards took up the cause and edged nearer the line. Denied by a determined defence, Irish opted to spin the ball wide where Higgins leapt to try and steal the ball and although he failed in his attempt he still managed to deflect the ball out of Armitage's grasp. Exeter were penalised at the next scrum deep inside their 22 and Irish decided to kick to the corner for the lineout only to see the door slammed shut by an indefatigable defence.
Pressure from Irish at scrum time drew the next penalty and Lamb wasted little time in slotting through the posts to level the scores as the game entered the final ten minutes. And an offside penalty five minutes later was given the same treatment to edge the visitors towards the win.
Exeter rallied as the clock ticked down but a well-marshalled Irish defence conjured a decisive turnover before closing out the game for a hard-fought victory.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.