Exeter Chiefs scored 17 unanswered points in a stirring second-half comeback to stun London Irish and claim a 29-23 victory at the Madjeski Stadium.
The Chiefs scored two tries in the last 15 minutes through Dean Mumm and Ben White and had three other efforts held up over the line as they secured a precious away win.
London Irish had looked favourites heading into the final quarter after tries from Nick Rouse and Marland Yarde either side of half-time, with Chiefs winger Tom James in the sin-bin for the second.
But John Yapp paid the price for repeated Irish infringements in their own 22 and was shown yellow by referee Andrew Small late on, and the Chiefs took full advantage of the extra man to edge home.
The Exiles suffered an early blow when full-back Topsy Ojo pulled up in the warm-up and was replaced by Alex Lewington. Exeter fly-half Gareth Steenson had the first shot at goal when Irish were pinged for accidental crossing, and he made no mistake to make it nine from nine in the Aviva Premiership on five minutes.
From London Irish’s first attack Exeter were penalised for not rolling away from the driving maul, but Ian Humphreys narrowly missed with his shot at goal.
The Exiles looked to make amends but Exeter winger Ian Whitten intercepted the ball and broke forward, winning a penalty as the home side went offside. But Steenson missed – for the first time this season – on the angle and it remained 3-0.
Humphreys levelled things up at the second attempt after a period of Exeter dominance, with the visitors failing to roll away from the tackle giving the fly-half a penalty on the ten-metre line.
Almost immediately Irish committed the same offence and Steenson gave Exeter back the lead from directly in front of the posts midway through the first half.
And the Aviva Premiership’s in-form goal-kicker was lining up another effort from 44 metres after Irish were penalised for diving in over the top, sending it straight through the uprights.
The Exiles thought they had scored the opening try but Halani ‘Aulika was adjudged to have been held up over the line by Steenson and Irish had to settle for a five-metre scrum.
Several dangerous pick and drives later and the pressure eventually told, Exiles lock Nick Rouse plunging over the line from close range on 29 minutes. Humphreys converted from nearly in front of the posts to put the Exiles in front for the first time.
It could have been 13-10 shortly after but the normally reliable Humphreys was wayward off the tee with a penalty and the chance went begging.
Exeter had the first serious attack of the second half, driving deep into the Irish 22 with the home side pinged for pulling down the maul with Steenson opting to kick for the corner.
The Chiefs pushed hard for the line and appeared to have scored their first try of the game only for referee Andrew Small to adjudge the ball had been held up.
Irish were unable to withstand the pressure, however, and conceded a penalty at the scrum that Steenson dispatched with ease.
The home side broke upfield and Tom James saw the first yellow card of the afternoon for a tug off the ball on Yarde to give Humphreys the chance to get Irish back in front, which he took with aplomb.
The Exiles almost took immediate advantage, Chiefs scrum-half Haydn Thomas passing the ball straight to Irish flanker Bryn Evans.
Thomas got back to make the tackle three metres from the Chiefs try line but London Irish had an overlap out wide and Lewington’s pass put Yarde away to score.
Humphreys’ touchline conversion gave the Exiles a 20-12 lead, with Exeter ringing the changes as they tried to stay in the game.
Exeter were in danger of buckling as the Irish pack turned the screw and another penalty at the set-piece gave Humphreys another shot at goal from 35m, which he slotted to put his side more than two converted scores ahead.
The Chiefs looked to have found a foothold in the game when centre Jason Shoemark burrowed his way over the whitewash but after a long delay the TMO decided he hadn’t grounded the ball.
Referee Small brought play back for a penalty to Exeter and Steenson bisected the posts to bring up 1,000 points for the Chiefs.
Irish were then penalised for hands in the ruck and with momentum swinging back to the Chiefs, they opted for another lineout as they looked to build pressure.
The Exiles infringed in their own 22 again and replacement John Yapp was sent to the sin bin, with Exeter again going for the lineout.
A driving maul took them over the line with the try awarded to skipper Mumm, Steenson adding the extras to reduce the deficit to one point with a little over ten minutes remaining.
Exeter broke down the left, Tom James made valuable ground and Dave Lewis was only held up by desperate defence from Yarde.
But the comeback was complete with six-and-a-half minutes to play as Exeter pushed for the line and Ben White spotted a gap and scampered over the line.
Steenson converted to make it 17 unanswered points for the Chiefs and despite Irish pressing late on, Exeter held out for their second Aviva Premiership win of the campaign.