London Irish 17-14 Exeter: Exiles avenge Premiership Cup final defeat to clinch fifth-placed finish
London Irish spent the week worrying whether their wages would be paid, but ended a turbulent six days with their highest Premiership finish in 14 years.
Just 47 hours after Irish were finally paid April’s overdue wages, Juan Martin Gonzalez bagged a try brace to see off Exeter 17-14 and seal the Exiles’ fifth-place Premiership finish.
The Brentford men ground through a staccato encounter to keep Exeter in sixth and secure their highest league finish since 2009.
That their best season in a generation should come alongside continued fears for their future only serves to sum up the sorry state of English club rugby.
Replacement flanker Tom Pearson bagged a score himself then sent Gonzalez in for the winning try, as Irish edged out the youthful Chiefs.
Jacques Vermeulen and Tom Hendrickson claimed Exeter’s scores in a typically dogged turn from the Devonians, but how Irish’s tired eyes needed this result.
The US consortium locked in protracted takeover negotiations remain fully confident of having Irish eyes smiling again in no time, but six-day late wage payments hardly eradicated wider fears at Brentford’s Gtech Community Stadium.
As King Charles III was waving to adoring crowds 10 miles down the road at Buckingham Palace, Irish were finishing a fine season hoping upon hope for an anointment of their own.
Central London might have been fixated on the coronation, but out west a mood of hope and worry filled the air.
Two generations of Irish fans clung to either end of a heartfelt banner before kick-off, pleading simply “Please save our club, 124 years of history”.
Anyone of an Exiles persuasion continues to cling to the expectation that the US consortium waiting in the wings to take over the club will prove the real deal.
In a season where both Worcester and Wasps went bust, with no guarantees yet that either club will return, Irish’s fans are justified in both concern and scepticism.
Irish’s players and staff went six days without pay this week, in a round of brinkmanship between the current and prospective owners that quickly turned ugly.
The Exiles squad were minutes away from submitting breach-of-contract notices on Thursday when owner Mick Crossan stepped in and settled the club’s April payroll.
Both the RFU and Premiership Rugby had to remind the Irish owner that his responsibilities are not yet over, despite the prospective owners having promised to take the financial strain while takeover talks rumble on.
The US consortium looking to take control attributed the payment delays to administrative banking issues.
Hopes remain high internally at Irish, both among the current leadership and the playing squad, for a brighter future.
In the coaching and playing staff at least, Irish have steadily and sensibly built a fine set-up.
Take away the financial fears, and Irish out to be looking to challenge for a league crown in the next two years.
This group had to settle for fifth and a near-miss for the play-offs this term, but at least could console themselves in a final-day victory.
Paddy Jackson fluffing a penalty from straight in front of the posts set a portent of a messy first half ahead.
Vermeulen drew first blood for Chiefs just past the quarter-hour, with a score as soft as anything Irish have leaked in a fine campaign.
Slade’s conversion left Exeter leading until almost the half-hour mark, when Irish finally clicked into gear.
A 25-metre rolling maul had Exeter flummoxed before Irish struck from a penalty lineout.
So’otala Fa’aso’o punched into midfield and Gonzalez added a neat finish, with Jackson’s conversion levelling the game at 7-7.
Exeter dominated possession in the closing stages but to no avail, leaving nothing between the teams at the break.
The sloppiness continued after the interval, with both sides equally guilty.
Irish cut the malaise with replacement flanker Pearson capping a driven lineout.
The advantage was cut immediately however, as Rory Jennings knocked on a poor pass and Chiefs replacement Hendrickson raced in unopposed.
Slade’s conversion inched Exeter into a 14-12 lead with little more than 10 minutes to play.
Jackson missed his second eminently kickable penalty of the match next, before punting the following to the corner as the hosts chased victory.
Irish appeared to have botched the chance, but Harvey Skinner knocked on after a bullish Exeter blitz - and the home side pounced.
Cinti and Loader combined on the right flank, before Pearson sent Gonzalez haring across the line.
Jackson missed the conversion however, leaving Irish defending a 17-14 lead into the final exchanges.
The hosts saw out the win without issue in the end. Would that this much-vaunted takeover could now follow suit.