As geography students know the Pennine mountain range divides the northern part of England and impact on many aspects of life. Last night London Irish had reason to be grateful for their impact on the weather as the environs of Leeds enjoyed a dry and windy winter’s evening. On the other side of the mountains the rain was falling in torrents! This was the first game the Exiles had played in dry conditions for eight weeks.
In the first half, having won the toss, Irish choose to play into the strong wind blowing from north to south down the pitch. The home side tried to use the meteorological advantage throughout the lively, opening forty minutes but struggled to make it count in terms of scores.
A resolute Irish defence boosted by the return of Declan Danaher, Kieron Dawson and Chris Sheasby in the back row, resisted all that the home side could throw at them.
It was clear from the opening changes that Leeds were going to attack with ball in hand as much as possible using their speedy backs to stretch the visitors’ defence. Wave after wave of black-shirted players drove at the Exiles through the opening quarter trying to engineer that vital gap that could be exploited by the speed of Albanese, Christophers, Scarbrough or Snyman. Try as they did to drive the ball up the middle or to move it out wide they met a green wall that tackled and tackled, squeezing the energy out of the attackers.
Justin Bishop was called upon to show catching and kicking kills that are rarely seen, Geoff Appleford and Rob Hoadley made courageous tackles. And behind them were Darren Edwards, Mark Mapletoft, Paul Sackey and Michael Horak ready to counter-attack.
As the half unfolded it was the home side that began to lose its shape especially on the fringes, as the intensity of the physical battle took its toll. Ryan Strudwick marshalled his forwards to telling effect urging them forward. Chris Sheasby was back to his best at the base of the scrum. Declan Danaher and Kieron Dawson sniped continuously around the fringes of ruck and maul, denying the home scrum half clean possession. Inevitably, this form of defence carries a risk of conceding penalties.
The Tykes’ fly half, Gordon Ross, the Scottish international fly half, had three kickable penalties in the first half but was successful with only one in the 36th minute, this was the first score of the game. Three minutes later, Irish were awarded their first kickable penalty of the game, Mark Mapletoft sent the ball between the posts to level the score just before referee Mr Spreadbury blew his whistle for half-time.
Leeds emerged for the third quarter determined to pick up from where they had left off in the second. Playing once again with great energy they encountered the same determined Exiles’ resistance as in the first half. A second penalty by Ross in the 46th minute was scant reward for the home side’s efforts even though it restored their lead.
Irish showed great patience in defence, moving the ball though phases repeatedly as they drove the home side back. Mapletoft began to use the wind to telling effect, kicking behind the attacking home side and forcing its full back to have to chase the ball into touch.
After ten minutes it was no surprise that the pace of the game faltered, Irish were taking control, the experience of Dawson and Sheasby and the tireless work of Strudwick lifted their colleagues. In the 53rd minute Irish created an attacking position on the Leeds 22 on the right. Both sets of forwards were sucked into a ruck, the ball came out on the Exiles’ side and was whisked away by Darren Edwards. Three pairs of hands and three seconds later it was with Geoff Appleford on the left wing. From 20 metres out, he ran at two Leeds’ defenders, broke their attempted tackles and touched down for a vital try. Mark Mapletoft kicked the difficult conversion to give his side the lead for the first time in the match.
Five minutes later Mapletoft was unlucky when the ball bounced off the upright from a penalty. His opposite number, Ross, kicked his third penalty in the 64th minute, to narrow the score to 9-10 in favour of the visitors.
Either side of the 60th minute Irish were to make a number of key substitutions, two of them for injuries and one tactical. Delon Armitage replaced Micheal Horak at full back after he suffered a painful shin injury and Paul Gustard came on for Declan Danaher who went off with a dead leg. The tactical substitution was that of Barry Everitt for Mark Mapletoft. This was Everitt’s first appearance for eight weeks after he struggled with a serious hamstring injury.
Irish had a fortunate escape in the 70th minute when Edwards and Hoadley beat Christophers in the race to touch down after a clever chip and chase. Ross was to miss his third penalty of the evening a minute later so the score remained 9-10 with nine minutes of normal time remaining.
As the clock wound down Everitt was called upon to make a number of telling clearance kicks. It was from one of these that landed deep in the opposition half in the 77th minute that the ball was recycled to him. He had just sufficient time to steady himself and drop a crucial goal from 30 metres.
The home team were visibly knocked back by this score. That combined with an increasing number of handling errors meant they struggled to escape from their half. The game had moved into the sixth minute of injury time when Everitt once again showed consummate skill in capitalising on the smallest of opportunities to drop his second goal from 25 metres out on the left to give the Exiles a 16-9 lead. Mr Spreadbury blew the final whistle a minute afterwards.
Speaking after the match head coach, Gary Gold, was full of praise for his team’s outstanding defence. “Headingley is not an easy place to come to and win as we know from last season. Leeds are an unbelievable team on paper so we knew we would be up against it. We played very well into the wind in the first half and that was the foundation of our victory. Mark Mapletoft controlled the game well during that time and Barry Everitt came on to show what he is capable of. This win is important for our confidence.”
Scorers: Leeds Tykes: Penalty goals: Ross 3 (36, 46, 64). London Irish: Try: Appleford 53min. Conversion: Mapletoft. Drop Goals: Everitt 2 (77, 86). Penalty goals: Mapletoft (39).
Scoring sequence (Leeds Tykes first): 3-0, 3-3 (half-time) 6-3, 6-10, 9-10, 9-13, 9-16.
Leeds Tykes: M Cardey, D Scarbrough, P Christophers, A Snyman, D Albanese, G Ross, A Dickens, M Shelley, M Regan, G Kerr, S Hooper, T Palmer (captain), S Morgan, J Ponton, C Rigney.
London Irish: M Horak (rep: D Armitage, 60), P Sackey, G Appleford, R Hoadley, J Bishop, M Mapletoft (rep: B Everitt, 64), D Edwards, N Hatley, N Drotske (rep: A Flavin, 73), D Wheatley (rep: A Halsey, 7-11), R Strudwick (captain), B Casey, D Danaher (rep: P Gustard, 55), K Dawson (rep: K Roche, 82), C Sheasby.
Referee: T Spreadbury (RFU)