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Well those questions received an unequivocal and positive answer at Madejski Stadium yesterday afternoon. By out-scoring Bath by three great tries to one, the Exiles showed their true mettle, however, the result shows that they lost the match to a decision-making and interpretation process that does not have to provide answers.
For the second week in succession London Irish lost because of the number of penalties they conceded. Lessons were learned from the experience six days earlier at Twickenham, and so yesterday the Exiles made obvious efforts to control and manage their discipline, however, they were undone by interpretation of the laws that created confusion and disbelief.
Here are two of many examples from the second half – in the 57th minute after a period of intense pressure on the Irish try line, a Bath player (not the captain) asks the referee to go to the television match official to ask whether or not he had touched down for a try seven phases before! The drive by the Bath forwards is reviewed and it clearly shows that not only was the effort short of the try line, the action involved two clear movements. The decision was ‘no try’ and should have been a penalty to the Exiles for the double movement, instead a five metre scrum was awarded to the visitors from which they scored a try.
Five minutes later, the outstanding Alex Corbisiero is penalised for not binding at a scrum. The reason he does not bind is that the Bath prop on whom he is supposed to bind is lying on the pitch! The outcome was a penalty against Irish, three points to Bath.
In as dramatic a change of tactics that has been seen at Madejski Stadium this season to date, the West Country team’s second half forward-dominated performance, so uncharacteristic of their heritage, fully exploited the conditions and the officials to record their first win in the Premiership since September. London Irish were left to reflect on the value of their commitment to playing open, attacking running rugby that rewards supporters by scoring tries.
On a grey, overcast New Year’s Day afternoon, the Exiles had shown their intent from the kick-off. A lineout steal by Nick Kennedy in the first minute had the home supporters cheering. Within a minute Dan Bowden broke through Bath’s midfield defence, he offloaded in the tackle to Delon Armitage who floated a pass to his left to Sailosi Tagicakibau. The Samoan handed-off one attempted tackle, broke another and powered his way to touchdown in the left corner. Chris Malone added the extras with an outstanding conversion from the left touchline.
Within three minutes Malone extended the Exiles’ lead with a penalty after Bath were penalised at the breakdown.
Whether in defence or attack Irish had the better of the contest at this point as the talented visitors’ back line were uncharacteristically hesitant in their execution going forward.
As both teams competed for crucial possession, the tackles were uncompromising with both back rows in particular fiercely committed, especially at the breakdown. Irish had two opportunities to extend their lead but a tap penalty by George Stowers brought no reward and a long range penalty from 55 metres by Delon Armitage drifted left of the left upright.
Just on the half hour the visitors, inspired by the tireless efforts of their captain Luke Watson, mounted an attack that took them into the Irish half. Irish were penalised at the breakdown and Olly Barkley kicked the penalty to open the scoring for his team. Three minutes later, another breakdown offence and the former England fly half doubled his team’s score with his second successful kick at goal.
Irish responded with a superb team counter-attack. George Stowers and Elvis Seveali’i showed commendable vision to exploit space in right midfield. The outside centre passed to his right to Delon Armitage racing down the touchline. The full back’s pace took him beyond Jack Cuthbert’s despairing tackle before he passed inside to Richard Thorpe who had the pace to reach the try line in the right corner for a superb score. Malone once again kicked an outstanding conversion from the right touchline.
With two minutes of the half remaining, Irish were penalised for a scrum offence and Barkley kicked his third penalty to leave the score 17-9 at half-time.
The rain that had threatened all afternoon started during the interval influencing the conditions. It also appeared to be a catalyst for a major change of game plan by the visitors. Whereas in the first half Bath used their half backs to bring their backs into play, it quickly became clear from the opening exchanges of the second period that a forward dominated more conservative style of play was their choice for the remainder of the match.
This quickly produced results as the driving maul and pick-and-go sequences by the pack meant that the visitors dominated possession and territory. Irish battled courageously in defence and fought terrier-like to regain possession with little reward.
The unrelenting pressure forced a sequence of scrums and lineouts in the Exiles’ 22 which demanded energy-sapping, committed defence. Given the way the decision-making had been going there was an inevitability that it was London Irish player that was going to receive a yellow card and Thorpe was the unfortunate victim in the 54th minute.
Bath were to score ten points during his absence. The questionable background to the Claassens try in the 59th minute has been described above as has Barkley’s 64th minute penalty.
Irish refreshed their resources immediately afterwards introducing four replacements that included Darren Allinson at scrum half and Bob Casey in the second row and with Thorpe’s return from the sin-bin, they were back at full strength just in time for a crucial scrum in the visitor’s 22 on the right. Irish secured the ball cleanly and Allinson combined with Bowden to pass to Topsy Ojo whose diagonal running line split the defence and he scored under the posts. Bowden added the extras to give Irish a five point lead.
There followed a final, frenetic ten minutes of play, the pace of which appeared to stretch the decision-making and interpretation of the laws of the game of everyone in the stadium. Two penalties were awarded to Bath; the first in the 71st minute brought the score to 24-22. The second in the 79th minute which Barkley took his time over, gave his team a one point win.
Brendan Venter, London Irish’s former distinguished player and coach, who departs England and English rugby in a week’s time, would have had considerable empathy with his former club, its coaches and players.
Scorers. London Irish: Tries: Tagicakibau (53), Thorpe (65), Ojo; Conversions: Malone 2, Bowden. Penalty goal: Malone (50). Bath : Try: Claassens (24); Conversion: Barkley. Penalty goals: Barkley.
Scoring sequence (London Irish first): 7-0, 10-0, 10-3, 10-6, 17-6, 17-9 (half-time) 17- 16, 17-19, 24-19, 24-22, 24-25.
London Irish: 15. D Armitage, 14. T Ojo, 13. E Seveali’i, 12. D Bowden, 11. S Tagicakibau, 10. C Malone (rep: S Mapusua, 64), 9. P Hodgson (captain)(rep: D Allinson, 64), 1. A Corbisiero (rep: D Murphy, 71), 2. J Buckland, 3. F Rautenbach (rep: C Dermody, 60), 4. N Kennedy, 5. M Garvey (rep: B Casey, 65), 6. R Thorpe (sin-bin: 54-64), 7. S Armitage, 8. G Stowers, (rep: K Roche, 65).
Bath Rugby: 15. J Cuthbert, 14. M Carraro, 13. O Barkley, 12. S Hape (rep: N Abendanon, 73), 11. M Banahan, 10. B James; 9. M Claassens (rep: M McMillan, 71), 1. D Barnes (rep: D Bell, 46), 2. L Mears (rep: P Dixon, 69), 3. D Wilson, 4. S Hooper, 5. D Grewcock (rep: I Fernandez-Lobbe, 60), 6. L Watson (captain), 7. L Moody, 8. S Taylor.
Referee: Mr G Garner (RFU)