By the time the biggest month in Exeter’s history is over few will remember this minor blemish on their record. Bigger contests, with bigger prizes at stake, loom in the not-so-distant future and the starting XV who saw off Toulouse last Saturday were all to be found seated in the stands. Few visitors depart Devon victorious these days even so, and Irish will be mightily relieved to have snaffled their first Premiership win in 10 attempts.
The Exiles were indebted to Agustín Creevy, for so long a talisman for his native Argentina, for the 70th-minute converted try which saw off the below-strength European finalists. The Chiefs have already guaranteed themselves first place in the regular season and a home semi-final but they will still be disappointed to have suffered just their third home loss of the season and their second in a row in the league.
The main consolation for the league leaders was that the wing Olly Woodburn came though safely on his return from a groin problem while Ollie Devoto looked sharp in the centre but Rob Baxter did not mince his words afterwards. “It’s disappointing when you lose games you had a chance of winning,” he said. “I watched us do things that Exeter Chiefs don’t do, and players who are going to play a lot of games next season have to improve quickly.” His side still have to go to Wasps in Coventry on Sunday before the serious business of knockout football resumes.
By the time the Chiefs had finished the number of players they have fielded since the season restarted had swollen to 54, with Stu Townsend, Elvis Taione, Charlie Wright and Sam Maunder the latest to pull on the jersey. The busiest performer on show was the former Gloucester back-rower Aaron Hinkley, who made a fine impression before being forced to limp off prematurely.
Exeter also lost Billy Keast to a similarly painful-looking injury and, when it mattered, it was Irish’s forwards who stepped up. It always helps to bring on a replacement as good as Creevy and he duly forced his way over from a close-range driven maul to hoist Irish to ninth in the table. “They wanted to win and you can’t coach that attitude,” said their director of rugby Declan Kidney. “I believe there’s a lot more in us.”
It made a change from the first half, when Irish’s early lack of ruthlessness close to the line threatened to cost them. While the visitors over-complicated things, Exeter scored from their first two attacks, with Will Witty and Devoto finishing from close range. Irish did score a 28th minute try of their own through their lively starting hooker Matt Cornish but Paddy Jackson, already off target with his first two penalty attempts, missed the relatively simple conversion.
It required a galloping 60-metre interception try from the centre Curtis Rona, this time converted from the touchline by Jackson, to deliver Irish a 15-12 half-time advantage at a ground where they had last won a decade ago. Exeter needed some kind of response and were suitably grateful when another long-range interception, this time from Tom Hendrickson, restored their advantage after 51 minutes. It set up a taut finale but, for once, the Chiefs could not cling on.
None of it resonated as much as the day’s starkest statement from the Exiles’ chief executive Brian Facer, who warned before kick-off that the financial effects of the Covid-19 situation posed the “most extreme” threat to the club in its 122-year history. “We can see the cliff edge,”he told the Standard. “We could not go another six months without revenue coming into the club. It’s the death of sport if you are not careful.”