Written off as relegation fodder, London Welsh sent out a clear message to their Aviva Premiership rivals at the Kassam Stadium on Sunday that they are not here to make up the numbers.
After a comfortable defeat to Leicester and a comprehensive rout at the hands of Harlequins, the Exiles found themselves two tries down after ten minutes to the Chiefs and seemingly on course for another harsh introduction to Premiership life.
But not this time, not this time. The Welsh pack once again showed that they’ll be no pushover, sending Exeter into retreat to earn a penalty try before Nick Scott intercepted before sprinting 80 metres.
Gordon Ross’ penalty completed the comeback and Welsh took a 15-14 lead into the break.
Richard Baxter’s converted try put the Chiefs back in front, with Ross and Gareth Steenson trading penalties. It seemed Welsh would have to settle for a losing bonus point until two minutes from time Ed Jackson drove over from close range.
Seb Jewell’s conversion sealed the club’s first-ever Aviva Premiership victory. It will take a few more if the Exiles are to be playing in the same league again next season, but this was definitely a start.
Having conceded early points to Leicester and Harlequins, Welsh had the opportunity to strike first against the Chiefs. Ross’ grubber kick and a good chase forced Exeter to concede a five-metre scrum, only for Welsh to go blind and Tyson Keats’ offload to be intercepted.
Matt Jess sprinted 50 metres as Welsh turned defence into attack. The Exiles got back to close the door on the winger but the damage had already been done, and when the Chiefs switched play across the field Luke Arscott went over. Ignacio Mieres added the extras.
Chiefs centre Sireli Naqelevuki was causing Welsh problems every time he touched the ball. It was his carry that set up Exeter’s second try, with the centre releasing Jess for an easy run in. Indeed, it was all a bit too easy for the Chiefs.
Mieres converted and a third heavy defeat seemed on the cards for the Exiles, but crucially Welsh responded quickly.
From a lineout on the Exeter 22, the Exiles’ forward drove their way up to the tryline, only for the Chiefs to drag it down. Referee David Pearson had no hesitation in awarding a penalty try.
Ross converted and it was to get even better for Welsh when Scott intercepted Chris Whitehead’s pass and sprinted away to score. Ross couldn’t add the extras, but the home side had closed the gap to just two and fears of a third heavy defeat had been allayed. More to the point, Exeter knew they were in for a tough afternoon.
Ross was then off target with a penalty attempt after Tom Johnson was penalised for offside at a ruck, but he would edge Welsh in front before the half was out.
Exeter’s main threat was still through Naqelevuki, but Phil MacKenzie bundled Jess into touch as he collected an up and under inside his own 22.
From there it turned into a forwards battle and the Exiles were eventually awarded with a penalty at a scrum close to the posts. Ross did the rest and Welsh were ahead for the first time in a Premiership game.
Welsh would see out the half camped on their own line, however, as the Chiefs poured on the pressure, but see it out they did. Ross banging a penalty into the South Stand to cue the half-time whistle.
There was no let up from the home side after the break, as they probed the Exeter defence. Hooker Neil Briggs found a gap, only for Tom Arscott’s grubber to go dead with Scott in pursuit.
For all of Welsh’s early good work, though, it was the away side that put the first points on the board. Mieres pushed a penalty into the corner and although the Exiles repelled the initial catch and drive, the Chiefs eventually forced their way over through Baxter. Mieres converted.
Ross immediately closed the gap to three points with a penalty, with Mieres then off target after Luke Arscott had sliced through the Welsh defence.
Replacement Gareth Steenson made no mistake, however, when given the opportunity with 17 minutes remaining, after the Welsh pack were deemed to have infringed at a scrum.
Steenson’s strike left the Exiles needing a converted try and with Exeter seemingly content to protect what they had, it duly arrived two minutes from time as the Welsh forwards drove up to the line and Jackson forced his over from close range to huge cheers.
Jewell kept his nerve to slot over what would in other circumstances have been a straight forward conversion, and Welsh were within touching distance.
The home side still had 90 seconds to negotiate on the countdown clock, but this they did without alarm to ensure a famous win and a famous day in the history of London Welsh RFC.
Tries: Penalty Try, Scott, Jackson; Cons: Ross, Jewell; Pens: Ross (2).
Tries: Arscott, Jess, Baxter; Cons: Mieres (3); Pens: Steenson.
Referee: David Pearson
Referee Assistants: Paul Burton & Andrew Small