London Irish secured their highest league finish since 2009 with a 17-14 victory over Exeter Chiefs in the final round of the 2022/23 Gallagher Premiership season.
Jacques Vermuelen registered the game’s opening score at the Gtech Community Stadium, but Juan Martín González retorted for his first of two tries in what was an attritional opening 40.
Replacement Tom Pearson dotted down off the back of a rolling maul in the second half to take Irish into a points advantage for the first time in the tie, but a converted Tom Hendrickson effort reversed the advantage swiftly.
González would have his say on the affair for its concluding try, but with much effort required to see the result over the line, pure forward power overturned possession at the final scrum to conclude proceedings in west London.
Irish faced pressure from the off with Chiefs eating into their territory, Ben White’s excellent box kicks alleviating such pressure before a tackle mid-air tackle on Ben Loader saw the travelling side concede a penalty.
Declan Kidney’s boys began to get into their attacking stride, White spotting a gap in midfield and Rory Jennings then jackalling possession back, but Paddy Jackson’s place kick attempt drifted wide.
The scrappy nature of the encounter saw plenty of incomplete passes in the opening exchanges, Exeter kicking ahead and going close to the line but after working through the phases, Jennings held up his opponents over the line.
Exeter would take the lead through a Jacques Vermuelen try, Stuart Townsend sniping from the ruck to offload well to Ollie Devoto who then found his loose forward to dot down, Henry Slade converting.
A loose collection of a box kick saw Exeter then go to the corner, Irish penalised for being offside and Josh Iosefa-Scott looked to have scored but spilled in the goal area.
Chiefs would come again but a massive hit from Benhard Janse van Rensburg and Paddy Jackson saw Chiefs knock-on, complemented with Danilo Fischetti and Agustín Creevy combining to win a scrum penalty.
A rolling maul that brought the Exiles 30+ metres up the Gtech field was eventually brought down illegally, and after Irish found touch from the penalty, ball was spread infield.
A big carry from So’otala Fa’aso’o preceded a bustling run from back-row partner Juan Martín González, the Puma international scoring his first Premiership try of the campaign with a Jackson conversion to boot.
Despite a lack of fluency in open play, Chiefs were very much winning the set-piece duel, especially at the put-in, but an Irish sack of a driving maul from a lineout parked Exeter’s hopes of regaining the lead before the close of the half.
The second-half opened very much in the same fashion as the first, Ben White then going down with an injury to his left leg but valiantly carrying on as González recorded his seventh lineout steal of the season.
With good industry on the ground from Fischetti, White kicked well away to gain some valuable territory as the Scottish scrum-half took down his opposite number on a returning breakaway.
Alongside replacements Mike Willemse and Lovejoy Chawatama, Fischetti linked with the front-row union to win successive scrum penalties as Irish moved up the park as the scrum dominance switched in the game.
A break down the blindside initiated by Joe Powell saw Jennings and Lucio Cinti drive their side forward, Chiefs not releasing at the breakdown and Irish subsequently going for the corner.
Another metre-absorbing rolling maul brought the Exiles to within inches of the whitewash and Tom Pearson was the man to dive over, but soon after the restart, Chiefs were up the other end with a runaway try converted by Tom Hendrickson.
A swift change of lead slightly dampened the celebrations at the Gtech, which were only compounded by a Jackson miss from the tee that would’ve reinstated Irish as the leaders.
Exeter’s aerial infringement from a Garryowen afforded the hosts field position, and despite loose handling, González forced a knock-on that would lead to his own score.
A pass out wide to Cinti saw the Puma link-up with Jackson, Pearson and then González who completed his brace to hurtle his team into a narrow three-point cushion with eight minutes remaining.
Such a tight contest led to a tension-fraught conclusion, Josh Hodge seeking a 50:22 that went out on the full and James Stokes being put away – only for play to be brought back for a forward pass.
Two put-ins remained in the game, Exeter playing out of the first but Irish were to overturn possession at the second, sealing the all-important four points to finish fifth!
Score sequence (London Irish first): 0-5, 0-7, 5-7, 7-7, 12-7, 12-12, 12-14, 17-14.
London Irish: Tries: González (27) (72), Pearson (63); Conversions: Jackson (28).
Exeter Chiefs: Tries: Vermuelen (16), Hendrickson (65); Conversions: Slade (17)(66); Penalties: ; Yellow Cards: ; Red Cards: .
15 Henry Arundell (Stokes 67), 14 Ben Loader, 13 Benhard Janse van Rensburg, 12 Rory Jennings, 11 Lucio Cinti, 10 Paddy Jackson, 9 Ben White (Powell 57); 1 Danilo Fischetti (Haffar 73) 2 Agustín Creevy (Willemse 41), 3 Oliver Hoskins (Chawatama 53), 4 Api Ratuniyarawa (Caulfield 53), 5 Rob Simmons, 6 Matt Rogerson (c) (Pearson 53), 7 Juan Martín González, 8 So’otala Fa’aso’o (Cunningham-South 65).
16 Mike Willemse, 17 Tarek Haffar, 18 Lovejoy Chawatama, 19 Josh Caulfield, 20 Tom Pearson, 21 Chandler Cunningham-South, 22 Joe Powell, 23 James Stokes.
15 Josh Hodge, 14 Immanuel Feyi-Waboso, 13 Henry Slade (c), 12 Ollie Devoto (Hendrickson 66), 11 Tom Wyatt, 10 Harvey Skinner, 9 Stu Townsend (Cairns 65); 1 Alec Hepburn (Keast 52), 2 Jack Innard (Harris 52), 3 Josh Iosefa-Scott (Street 52), 4 Jannes Kirsten (Williams 65), 5 Jack Dunne, 6 Jacques Vermuelen (Davis 57), 7 Christ Tshiunza, 8 Greg Fisilau.
16 Iestyn Harris, 17 Billy Keast, 18 Marcus Street, 19 Mike Williams, 20 Aidon Davis, 21 Tom Cairns, 22 Tom Hendrickson, 23 Dan John.
Referee: Mr Luke Pearce