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London Irish end difficult week on a high with win over Exeter

By PA
London Irish huddle after the Gallagher Premiership Rugby match between London Irish and Exeter Chiefs at Gtech Community Stadium on May 06, 2023 in Brentford, England. (Photo by Alex Davidson/Getty Images)

Two tries from Juan Martin Gonzalez ensured London Irish finished a difficult week on a high as they saw off Exeter Chiefs 17-14 at the Gtech Stadium.

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The build-up to the game had been far from ideal for Irish, whose players were paid late as the club’s proposed takeover continues to drag on.

In a game that swung one way then the other, Tom Hendrickson looked like he had earned Chiefs the victory, only for Gonzalez to turn it around for the Exiles to secure a fifth-placed finish, their best return in 14 years since they reached the Premiership final.

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Chiefs had said farewell to a core of players who had helped them to two Premiership titles and a European crown over the past six years last weekend and Rob Baxter used this game to look to the future, with Heineken Champions Cup rugby assured for both sides.

Exeter made the stronger start but it was Irish fly-half Paddy Jackson who missed the first chance at points, sending a long-range penalty effort wide.

The visitors were having some joy with their kicking game, putting Ben Loader under pressure and the try they deserved came after 16 minutes.

Stu Townsend made a break down the side of a ruck before finding Ollie Devoto with a clever offload, with the centre then feeding Jacques Vermeulen for a score that was converted by Henry Slade.

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Irish needed a spark and they got it when a monster rolling maul marched Exeter back 40 metres, earning a penalty in the process. From there, the hosts kicked to the corner and rather than go back to the maul, they spread the ball with one charge from So’otala Fa’aso’o followed by another from Gonzalez, with the Argentina flanker dotting down and Jackson making it 7-7.

Exeter ended the first half on top and that momentum continued into the second, but they could not turn pressure into points.

As in the first half, Irish took their time to stir into life but their rolling maul made the difference, Tom Pearson coming off the bench to score a try which put them into the lead for the first time with quarter of an hour remaining.

The lead did not last long though, Chiefs pouncing on a Rory Jennings spill in the middle of the park as Tom Wyatt scooped up the loose ball before replacement Hendrickson raced away. From in front of the posts, Slade converted to make it 14-12 to the visitors.

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Jackson had a chance to put Irish back in front with a long-range penalty, but again pushed his effort wide.

However, from a loose passage of play where Harvey Skinner and Wyatt knocked on when Exeter could have gone in again, Irish countered with Pearson putting Gonzalez away for what proved the winning score.

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