There remains a mathematical chance of London Irish avoiding relegation from the Premiership this season but any realistic hope of a reprieve was effectively ended on Sunday by a runaway Exeter.
Although better sides than Irish would have struggled to stop the galloping Chiefs, for whom the England back-rower Sam Simmonds scored a hat-trick of tries, there was a gulf between the league’s top and bottom clubs on a damp Reading afternoon. The outcome leaves the Exiles nine points adrift of 11th-placed Worcester with just two games left.
Even a brace of bonus-point wins against Saracens and Bath might not be enough with Worcester requiring only a single losing bonus point from their final two fixtures to guarantee their safety.
READ MORE: Double bronze for England in rugby sevens
The Chiefs, by contrast, have now secured themselves a home semi-final and will top the regular season table for the first time if they beat Sale at Sandy Park on Saturday week.
Irish’s technical consultant Declan Kidney is not yet formally conceding anything – “We’ll keep fighting right to the end” – but a looming return to the Championship comes at a delicate moment for the club’s board. There remains a desire to relocate back to London, ideally to share Brentford’s new stadium, but the club has just declared a loss of almost £3 million for the 2016-17 financial year and could face a full-on challenge from increasingly ambitious Ealing for promotion next year, assuming the Premiership is not ring-fenced by then.
Kidney is open to the idea of staying and is poised to be confirmed as director of rugby but Irish’s 35-5 away win at Harlequins last week is already a fading memory. In the first half Irish made just one incursion into their opponents’ 22; their strike-rate was little better after the interval aside from one muscular surge from winger Joe Cokanasiga which yielded his side’s only points.
The Chiefs, in contrast, could have bagged six tries in the first 40 minutes alone. Don Armand and Jonny Hill both made it over the line only for the final passes to be adjudged forward and Jack Nowell was also denied by the TMO who decided the England winger had been held in the tackle before getting up to touch down. It made no difference to the contest, Ben Moon and Simmonds twice making the most of their side’s overwhelming territorial advantage. The dominant Chiefs were finding it all too easy and were 21-0 up at the end of the first half
Simmonds, in particular, is looking seriously sharp and duly took his season’s tally in the league to 12, just one behind Worcester’s Josh Adams, nine minutes after the interval. Not long ago it was Thomas Waldrom who was Exeter’s principal poacher; when the popular no 8 bids regretful farewell to Devon’s cream teas this summer to return to New Zealand the Chiefs will already have a tailor-made replacement up and running.
They also have no shortage of depth in their squad with the knocks sustained by Don Armand and Harry Williams proving only minor.
They were not always at their most accurate here but their trusty system is paying consistent dividends and putting weaker sides under so much pressure they inevitably crack at some stage.
Further close-range scores from Mitch Lees and Jack Yeandle duly took the tally of tries scored by forwards to six, extending the Chiefs’ winning run to seven games in all competitions. The Exiles’ gloom was further compounded by the nasty-looking achilles injury suffered by full-back Tommy Bell, with Max Northcote-Green’s campaign also potentially over. It will take more than a Kidney transplant to save Irish from here.