Standout individual performances at domestic level can be a double edged sword for clubs that value consistency. The benefits are obvious, and any coach will tell you how much they enjoy seeing their charges achieve higher honours. But there are costs whenever a national selector comes calling for star players. Rob Baxter now understands the sting of this particular blade as his Exeter Chiefs squandered a 14-point lead to lose at London Irish.
Five of his stalwarts now call Eddie Jones their boss as they gear up for England’s Six Nations campaign starting next week. Only Leicester and Saracens have had to relinquish more players for the Red Rose. And in Luke Cowan-Dickie, Sam Simmonds, Jonny Hill, Henry Slade and Jack Nowell, the Chiefs have effectively had their backbone ripped out.
Not that they looked spineless in the opening exchanges in West London. A superior kicking game and relentlessly swift ball from the breakdown saw wave after wave of white shirted bodies crash over the gain line. Close-range tries from Olly Woodburn and Patrick Schickerling inside 20 minutes was just as much as Exeter deserved.
London Irish were hospitable during this period. Coughing up the ball in the tackle and failing to match their guests’ ferocity. But momentum is a fickle concept and the tide turned once Paddy Jackson came into the contest.
Wraparound loops and neat pops off his shoulder found the regular runs of Curtis Rona and Lucio Cinti. The two Wallaby locks Adam Coleman and Rob Simmons exerted themselves around the fringe and Tom Pearson emerged as the most prevalent presence at the breakdown.
And so the pendulum swung. Matt Cornish had the last touch on a move orchestrated by the forwards midway through the half. Jackson missed the shot at extras but made no mistake with two penalties shortly after. He had the last say in the half with a conversion following James Stokes’ try in the right corner. It was an excellent score with Jackson breaking a line before Ben Loader’s offload under pressure found his full-back on the gallop. Stokes deserved his try after expertly staying in touch and satisfying a lengthy review from the TMO.
London Irish celebrate their second try which helped them climb above their opponents. Photograph: Danny Loo/PPAUK/Shutterstock
The home side were value for their lead and looking to secure a Premiership double over the men from Devon for the first time since 2011. Such was their confidence that they opted for consecutive scrums from a penalty right under Exeter’s posts with only a four-point lead.
The second half was an arm wrestle and Exeter could have used some of their heavier hitters. Credit must go to Irish though who scrapped like a side conscious of their standing. This win moves the hosts above the Chiefs into sixth place. It is 11 years since they made the play-offs. Their fate is now with them as they have a clutch of games against teams above them.
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And though they remain a long shot to end among the top four, their mongrel will give them belief. Every time Exeter romped towards their red zone they found a way of securing a turnover. Cinti’s steal after 73 minutes ensured that the remaining action would take place with the Exiles in control, so much so that Jackson’s two missed penalties were irrelevant.
“It is a double-edged sword,” Exeter’s director of rugby Baxter said. “It’s become more of a challenge this season. With the Covid scenario, which has expanded the league, you just create more and more clashes. You work toward a squad that is built around what you know about the season and the fixture list and the challenges, and then it changes. But every team needs to adapt.”
The Chiefs will know they let this slip after such a commanding lead. Dealing in hypotheticals and what-ifs is not helpful but Baxter will surely wonder what might have been if he had some of his regulars to hand.