London Irish v Exeter Chiefs | Sunday 21 February | Madjeski Stadium | 17:00
We’re almost there rugby, fans but there’s still one more Aviva Premiership game to go before we can fully switch our attention to the 2016 Super Rugby season. The game in question will see London Irish host an Exeter Chiefs side that will be determined to capitalise on Saracens slip up last weekend.
So will the Chiefs continue to close the gap at the top of the Aviva Premiership log or will Irish have moved out of the relegation come the final whistle on Saturday?
To Win (80 Mins)
Tom Coventry's side reached a new low last weekend in what has been a pitiful season. Their 35-7 defeat at the hands of a less than vintage Northampton side will have left London Irish fans fearing for their side’s future. And with good reason. Irish currently sit at the foot of the Premiership log and are four points off safety and the 10th placed Worcester Warriors. They’re going to need to start racking up points ASAP in order to avoid the drop to England’s second tier.
Their task doesn’t get any easier this weekend as they come up against one of the Premiership's high-flyers. In order for them to claim victory this Saturday, they are going to have to negate playing their own brand of rugby and instead focus on exploiting Exeter’s weaknesses, which aren’t actually that easy to identify.
The one area where Irish could look to target when on attack is Exeter’s 10 and 12 channel. While Gareth Steenson has a golden boot on him and is able to distribute the ball with aplomb, he is culpable of shirking his defensive duties. I would also advise Irish not to commit a lot of men to the breakdown. While I fully think there’s merit in trying to take a better pack on head first, I think you have to know when to cut your losses as well, and If Irish look to assert themselves at the breakdown, it’s only going to end up in them being short of defenders out wide.
So basically, Irish have to look to implement a similar system to the one in which Eddie Jones used at last year’s World Cup. The tactic saw Jones’ Brave Blossoms look to fan out on defence and only commit numbers to a breakdown when they had a good chance to win the ball. It’s not the easiest system to implement particularly when you have a pack that can’t really be classified as a mobile bunch, however, this is the only way I can see Irish winning the game.
Last weekend’s defeat to Sale will have left a bitter taste in the Chiefs mouth. Not only did they lose to a side they really should have beaten but the man who stole the show for the Sale Sharks was Wasps old boy Danny Cipriani. In an ironic twist of fate – or a smart piece of business – the London Wasps announced the signing of Cipriani less than 24 hours after the former England flyhalf’s match winning performance condemned them to defeat.
Cipriani’s inspired performance wasn’t the only sting in the tail for Exeter however, as they would later witness table toppers Saracens drop points against Wasps. Had Exeter won their game against Sale, they would have drawn level on points with Saracens at the top of the log.
So not the best weekend for Rob Baxter’s men but the show must go on, and they’ve got an ideal chance to make up for last week’s timid performance this weekend. On paper Exeter really should walk this one. They’ve got a lot more talent amongst their squad and they’ve developed a game plan that suits the boggy underfoot conditions that are synonymous with English rugby grounds at this time of year. They will need to ensure they come into this game 100 percent focused, though, as they were caught napping in the early phases of last week’s fixture
Verdict: Exeter 3/10
If Baxter’s side are fully focused – which they really should be after last weekend’s slow start – then I can see them putting 20 points past their opponents.
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