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Warm, autumn sunshine bathed the headquarters of rugby union for the Exiles’ opening match of the new Guinness Premiership season. A record crowd in excess of 60,000 created an atmosphere that buzzed with anticipation.
The tension of the day was picked up by the players who wanted to impress on the big stage but a combination of “ring rustiness” and “first night nerves” meant that execution sometimes fell short of intention.
The opening half also suffered from a lack of continuity, referee Pearson was busy with his whistle and the players struggled to create a series of multi-phase moves – both teams had only one four phase move each, as unforced errors took their toll on the quality of the play.
London Irish had the better of the possession and territory and tried to play rugby, however, a tendency to kick possession away and an error count that reflected a lack of precision associated with the start of season, gave Saracens opportunities to counter-attack and they did.
The opposing fly halves, Glen Jackson for Saracens and Ryan Lamb, making his debut for London Irish, swopped penalties in the third and ninth minutes respectively to leave the score level at 3-3 after the opening quarter.
In the 21st minute Saracens counter-attacked down the left wing from a loose London Irish clearance kick. Irish were forced to concede a penalty 18 metres from their try line. They made the mistake of turning their backs expecting Jackson to kick for goal, instead of which the fly half cleverly took a quick tap penalty to himself and had the strength to break a tackle before crashing over for the opening try. He added the extras to stretch the lead to 10-3.
Jackson struck again in the 25th minute when Irish were caught offside, his penalty from 41 metres on the left bisected the uprights.
Irish struggled to gain quality possession. Saracens repeatedly infringed at the breakdown but escaped punishment for the most part. With the Exiles’ lineout not at its best, the backs had few opportunities although when they did move the ball Lamb’s distribution showed a real touch of class.
With five minutes to go to the interval Irish suffered another setback. Saracens ran another Irish clearance kick back down the left. Good Irish defence stopped the move but the men in black quickly recycled the ball to Jackson who sent a well judged, cross-field kick to the right where Andy Saull was lurking unmarked. The big flanker caught the ball and ran in unopposed for his team’s second try in the right corner. Jackson missed the conversion and also a drop goal attempt on the stroke of half-time.
Irish emerged for the second half with much more purpose and intensity about their play. They picked up the pace of the mach and began to move Saracens around the pitch.
Paul Hodgson began to orchestrate matters to telling effect. Seilala Mapusua and Steffon Armitage probed the Saracens’ defence who were forced to defend deep. The Irish pack, reinforced in the 51st minute by the welcome return to action of Faan Rautenbach and Bob Casey and the debut of George Stowers, threatened with a rolling maul.
Lamb had a chance to reduce the arrears with a penalty in the 50th minute but the ball went wide. He was successful with another penalty seven minutes later. In between Irish lost Delon Armitage and Saracens Schalk Brits to the sin-bin for fighting.
The momentum of the match was with the Exiles at this stage. In the 59th minute Saracens lost their number 8, Ernst Joubert to the sin-bin for persistent infringement at the breakdown. Irish capitalised within minutes when George Stowers was credited with the touchdown after a powerful drive by the Irish pack from a five metre scrum. Lamb missed the conversion to leave the score 18-11 to the ‘home’ team.
The Exiles continued to ring the changes, Peter Hewat replaced Lamb and Dan Murphy took over from Clarke Dermody at loose head prop. Saracens were caught offside in the 72nd minute and Delon Armitage kicked Irish’s third penalty to narrow the gap to four points and set up an exciting finale.
Irish launched wave after wave of attack and created two try-scoring chances but were let down by handling errors. Up until the final whistle, it was the Exiles on the attack and Saracens defending desperately but effectively. Irish came away from Twickenham with a losing bonus point to show for their efforts.
Speaking after the match, London Irish Head Coach Toby Booth said, “It’s an 80 minute game and while we always talk of London Irish comebacks, but if you give yourself too much to do, then you’re going to struggle.
“Some of our uncharacteristic errors are a reflection of where we are in relation to pre-season. Having the squad back late due to the Premiership final and boys away on international duty, we’re probably a little away from where we’d like to be, I though we looked a little ring rusty and were made to pay the price.”
Scorers: Saracens: Tries: Jackson (21), Saull (34); Conversion: Jackson. Penalty goal: Jackson 2 (3, 26).
London Irish: Try: Stowers (62). Penalty goals: Lamb 2 (9, 57), Armitage, D (72).
Scoring sequence (Saracens first): 3-0, 3-3, 10-3, 13-3, 18-3 (half-time) 18-6, 18-11, 18-14.
Saracens: 15. A Goode, 14. N Cato, 13. K Ratouvo, 12. B Barritt, 11. C Wyles, 10. G Jackson (rep: D Hougaard, 73), 9. N De Kock (rep: J Marshall, 69), 1. R Gill (rep: R Skuse, 63), 2. S Brits (sin-bin: 53-63), 3. C Nieto, 4. S Borthwick (captain), 5. H Vyvyan (rep: G Botha, 60), 6. W Van Heerden (rep: F Ongaro, 54-63)(rep: M Owen, 76), 7. A Saull, 8. E Joubert.
London Irish: 15. D Armitge (sin-bin: 53-63), 14. A Thompstone, 13. E Seveali’i (rep: P Richards, 40), 12. S Mapusua, 11. S Tagicakibau, 10. R Lamb (rep: P Hewat, 63), 9. P Hodgson, 1. C Dermody (captain) (rep: D Murphy, 69), 2. D Coetzee (rep: J Buckland, 51), 3. P Ion (rep: F Rautenbach, 51), 4. N Kennedy, 5. A Perry (rep: B Casey, 51), 6. D Danaher (rep: G Stowers, 8-13), 7. S Armitage, 8. C Hala’Ufia (rep: G Stowers, 51).
Referee: Mr D Pearson (RFU)