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London Irish made hard work of securing the victory margin that saw them safely through to round two of the Parker Pen Challenge Cup at Madejski Stadium on Sunday.
Starting with a deficit of four points Irish set about getting the scoreline back on track from the kick-off. In a sparkling opening half-hour that saw the Exiles playing their most adventurous and effective rugby of the season to-date, they scored 23 unanswered points through two converted tries and three penalties.
The Exiles started out determined to prove that the performance in the away game the previous weekend was one to forget. Led by a pack that exhibited a quality of pace and flair that any set of backs would be proud of, Irish recycled the ball through many phases and to telling effect.
Montauban were forced to concede penalties as they struggled to contain the wave after wave of attack. Mark Mapletoft kicked the first from 30 metres in the fourth minute, a second followed from 23 meters in the eight minute and the third in the 13th. The four point starting deficit was well and truly eliminated before the clock had registered 15 minutes.
Inspired by their early efforts Irish proceeded to move the ball at pace and stretch the visitors who lost second row, Mohammed Ben Bouhout to the sin-bin in the 13th minute. Delon Armitage, Ryan Strudwick and Phil Murphy combined to send Adrian Flavin speeding down the left wing with the pace of Justin Bishop. Unfortunately, a despairing tackle by a Montauban defender forced him into touch 15 metres from the try line.
The first quarter had just passed when Irish mounted another attack. Backs and forwards combined brilliantly to move the ball at pace from one side of the pitch to the other, then there was Adrian Flavin covering the vital metres to set up a perfect pass for Phil Murphy to power through for his first try at Madejski Stadium.
Minutes later there was a rare cameo as Flavin once again broke from the full back position and passed to Murphy breaking up the right wing! Such was the confidence and cleverness of the running lines and positioning of Irish at this point. In the 28th minute it was Murphy who exploited a gap in the visitors defence to make the crucial break before passing to Michael Horak who showed all his class in racing through to score just right of the posts. Mark Mapletoft kicked his second conversion for a lead of 23-0.
Thirty minutes had passed when Paul Gustard was sin-binned by referee Di Santis for persistent infringement. The confidence with which Irish had been playing up to that point seemed to desert them and to the dismay of the enthusiastic home supporters, Irish let the visitors play themselves into the game. Just as they showed in the Stade de Sapiac last Sunday, the French quickly proved that were just as effective at scoring tries away from home. Once again they used the rolling maul to telling effect, it provided the springboard for tries by back row, Faycal Boukanoucha in the 34th minute and left winger, Cedric Bourcet in the second minute of first half injury time. Both were converted by Benoit Albert for a half-time score of 23-14.
The break provided Irish with a chance to re-focus on the style of play that had been so successful in the opening quarter. The pack tore into the opposition time and again. In the 45th minute Adrian Flavin burst up the left wing and chose a line that took him inside the wide defenders. He was tackled but set the ball perfectly for Michael Horak to pick up at speed and race through untouched to score under the posts. Mapletoft coverted to stretch the Exiles’ lead to 13 points.
To their credit Montauban refused to give up. Led by their towering captain, Serge Sergueev they kept coming back at the home side. Benoit Albert was unlucky with two penalties before sustained good work by his pack created a try for No 8, Fabrice Soldan off the back of a scrum. Albert converted to narrow the lead to six points in the match, and only two on aggregate.
Irish went through an anxious period before another Mapletoft penalty in the 69th minute brought relief. The Exiles were forced to defend deep as the game entered its final stages as the French sought the try that would secure them passage to round two. Character and discipline were required as Irish rebuffed all that the visitors could throw at them.
As the game entered injury time it was Irish who were attacking, Montauban were forced to concede a penalty in the 83rd minute. Mapletoft struck the ball cleanly from 35 metres for three points and a final score of 36-24.
An important positive of the game for Irish was the performances of the young players in the team including Delon Armitage, Nils Mordt, Kevin Barrett, Adrian Flavin, Nick Kennedy – outstanding in the lineout again, and Michael Haslett.
London Irish’s second round match against Narbonne is set for the weekends of January 10/11 and 17/18. The home match will be played at Madejski Stadium on Sunday, 11th January, kick-off 3.00pm.
Scorers: London Irish: Tries: Murphy (23min), Horak 2 (28, 46). Conversions: Mapletoft: 3. Penalty goals: Mapletoft 5 (4, 9, 13, 69, 80 + 3). Montauban: Tries: Boukanoucha (34), Bourcet (40+2), Soldan (61). Conversions: Albert 3. Penalty goal: Albert (42).
Scoring sequence (London Irish first): 3-0, 6-0, 9-0, 16-0, 23-0, 23-7, 23-14 (half-time) 23-17, 30-17, 30-24, 33-24, 36-24.
London Irish: M Horak, D Armitage, N Greenstock, R Hoadley (rep: N Mordt, 40), J Bishop, M Mapletoft, K Barrett (rep: K Brennan, 62), N Hatley (Captain), A Flavin (rep: N Drotske, 66), R Hardwick, R Strudwick (rep: K Roche, 66), N Kennedy, P Gustard (sin-bin: 32-42, rep: D Danaher, 52-56), M Haslett, P Murphy (rep: D Danaher, 57).
Montauban: P Bondouy (rep: J Sieurac, 69), I Derenalagi, B Albert (rep: C Garcia, 77), H-P Vermis, C Bourcet, S Fauque, K Ratchkov, J-M Scherrer (rep: P Veron, 39), D Roumieu, M Ben Bouhout (sin-bin 13-23), C Bergez, S Sergueev (rep: Y Coreea, 67), F Boukanoucha (rep: A Gaubert, 16-20, 66), Y Misse (rep: S Durand, 58), F Soldan.
Referee: Sr G Di Santis (Italy)