London Irish 5 Exeter Chiefs 45
EXETER Chiefs secured a home Premiership semi-final with an emphatic six-try demolition of bottom side London Irish at a wet Madejski Stadium.
The Chiefs showed just why they are eight points clear at the top of the table, and with second-place Saracens also enjoying a hefty 41-6 home win over Bath, a repeat of the 2016 Twickenham final between the two sides currently looks on the cards.
While Irish can still mathematically stay up, they will need bonus-point wins at home to Saracens and away to Bath, and that is just not going to happen, and they will be spending next season in the Championship.
The star of the show was once again England No.8 Sam Simmonds, who grabbed a hat-trick of tries to take him to 15 for the season, with 12 of those in the Premiership, leaving him one behind the league’s top try scorer, Worcester’s Josh Adams.
The one downside for the Chiefs was the half-time withdrawal of England back rower Don Armand through a hip injury, but it was more of a precautionary measure as Exeter already had the win in the bag at that point as they led 21-0.
Exeter forwards coach Rob Hunter said: “We targeted a fast start as Irish have been getting points on the board really, really early in their last couple of matches, and we also wanted to make sure we came into the game with the right attitude and show that, just because we have qualified for the top four, by no means was anybody thinking the job was done.
“It was a very, very pleasing performance, a great scoreline and to maintain our focus throughout in terms of our kicking game, our territory game and our defence was really, really satisfying.”
The Chiefs could not have got off to a much better start, with a period of sustained pressure leading to a first try of the season for loose-head prop Ben Moon inside the first three minutes, with Gareth Steenson – returning to the starting line-up for the first time in seven weeks – slotting the conversion.
Exeter then went through a spell where their accuracy let them down, but normal service was resumed midway through the half when they ran back a clearance kick, and good hands by Henry Slade and Ian Whitten put Simmonds away for his first try.
Steenson improved that score, and a second from Simmonds in the 31st minute after he finished off a catch-and-drive line-out, and the Chiefs had a 21-point lead at the break.
Irish suffered a blow six minutes before the interval when they lost Plymouth-born full-back Tommy Bell to what looked like a serious ankle injury after he slipped on the greasy surface, and they also saw former Bath back rower Max Northcote-Green and winger Alex Lewington succumb to injuries during the game.
Steenson kicked a simple penalty to get Exeter’s second-half scoring underway, before converting the Chiefs’ bonus-point try touched down by that man Simmonds after a training ground move from a line-out just inside Exeter’s half.
Irish, to their credit, kept going, and powerful winger Joe Cokanasiga ran through an attempted tackle by Chiefs full-back Lachie Turner to score a try in the corner, but it was not long before Exeter were piling on the points again.
Second row forward Mitch Lees forced his way over from close range in the 61st minute, while replacement hooker Jack Yeandle added a sixth try three minutes from time.
Steenson converted both to give him a 100 per cent record from seven kicks and a personal 15-point haul.
London Irish: T Bell (F Mulchrone 34), J Cokanasiga, T Fowlie, T Brophy Clews, A Lewington (A Tikoirotuma 55), J Marshall, P van Zyl, B Franks (G Reid 51), D Paice (D Porecki 51), O Hoskins (P du Plessis 51), F van der Merwe (capt), S De Chaves (J Basham 75), J McNally, M Northcote-Green (J Schatz 4), O Treviranus.
Exeter Chiefs: L Turner, J Nowell (T O’Flaherty 66), H Slade (S Hill 55), I Whitten, S Cordero, G Steenson (capt), N White (S Townsend 55), B Moon (M Low 55), L Cowan-Dickie (J Yeandle 50), T Francis (H Williams 50), M Lees, J Hill (S Skinner 61), D Ewers (T Waldrom 17-25), D Armand (T Waldrom ht), S Simmonds.
London Irish: Try: Cokanasiga.
Exeter: Tries: Moon, Simmonds (3), Lees, Yeandle; Cons: Steenson (6); Pen: Steenson.
Referee: JP Doyle (RFU).