The Saracens success – a game given added spice by the salary cap scandal that saw Saracens docked 35 league points and fined more than £5 million – meant Exeter ended 2019 as league leaders.
And they remain top of the pile heading into a fortnight’s Champions Cup action after beating Madejski Stadium hosts London Irish 45-28.
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“We are really pleased with the way the guys fought out there, especially after last week and the emotion we chucked into that,” Chiefs head coach Hepher said.
“In the past, we have slipped off the next week.
“It is a tough situation when you do have such a big game mid-season, and then you have to respond to it, but this is what the side is getting much better at.
“It wasn’t perfect. There were a lot of mistakes and discipline was obviously a factor, but we had enough fight to win against a tough side.”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 6, 2020
Exeter delivered a strong bonus-point display, decisively scoring three converted tries in seven minutes before half-time.
Irish battled away to claim four tries of their own and collect a losing bonus point, with Exeter briefly being reduced to 13 men in the second half when wing Olly Woodburn and centre Ollie Devoto were sin-binned for deliberate knock-ons.
“We need to be a little smarter with how we deal with those situations when we are one or two (players) down, but we hung in there enough and got a penalty to move outside a two-score lead,” Hepher added.
“You cannot, for a 30-plus game season, hit 100 per cent mentality and be on it every single week.
“You have got to make sure you pick your moments. You will have slight dips, but you have got to make sure those dips are manageable.”
Lock Dave Dennis, hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie and Devoto all followed Sam Hill over the Irish line before the break, and there was no way back for an Exiles side condemned to a third-successive league defeat.
Hill added his second try just after the break, before substitute scrum-half Stu Townsend crossed.
And although Irish responded with touchdowns by wing Belgium Tuatagaloa, number eight Albert Tuisue, wing Ollie Hassell-Collins and flanker Steve Mafi – all converted by Stephen Myler – Exeter were good value, with Gareth Steenson kicking 15 points.
Irish rugby director Declan Kidney said: “There were one or two things that happened around the 30-minute mark that gave Exeter momentum.
“You go in at half-time 28-7 down, teams respond in different ways. I am very proud of the way we came back into it. There were a lot of big individual efforts.
“It’s only one point, but it is a point that could make a big difference at the end of the season.
“There were a lot of good things that we did, but we need to extend that to the 80 minutes.”
– Press Association
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