A perfect summer evening and a capacity crowd provided the background to a match that was always competitive with neither team willing to concede territory or possession without a contest.
As is the way with pre-season encounters both managements fielded starting line-ups that were a mixture of experienced professionals and emerging talent. Munster brought four Ireland internationals – Denis Hurley, Tony Buckley, Niall Ronan and Denis Leamy, back into their squad while Irish included 12 full internationals in the 27-man squad that travelled to Cork.
Paul Warwick who signed for the Exiles earlier in the year, only to change his mind, captained the home team, while Delon Armitage was given the honour of leading the visitors.
A lively opening quarter saw plenty of attacking intent from both teams with Munster’s direct approach securing the advantage on the scoreboard, hooker Damien Varley powered over in the fifth minute with Jeremy Manning adding the extras for a 7-0 lead. Ryan Lamb clawed back three points for Irish with a penalty in the ninth minute.
Lamb played a prominent part as Irish retained possession and moved the ball through the phases but it was the home side’s direct approach in which Niall Ronan was prominent that always threatened. He has lively support from left wing David Barnes.
Irish were dominating the scrums but were struggling at the breakdown where their efforts lacked the intensity of the opposition. Munster’s second try came on the half-hour mark when openside flanker Tommy O’Donnell scored after good build-up by Varley and Manning ho kicked the conversion.
With half time looming Irish had an opportunity to score their first try as a well executed move took them to within a metre of the Munster try line. However, a poorly executed tackle by Chris Hala’Ufia resulted in him being sin-binned and Irish turning over possession.
With the opening half in injury time a clever grubber kick through the Irish defence by Warwick gave flying winger Barnes the chance to touch down his side’s third try. With Manning converting, the hosts went into the interval with a 21-3 lead.
Both teams introduced a number of replacements at half-time with Irish introducing more experienced players to immediate effect. With Paul Hodgson orchestrating matters at the scrum and breakdown, the pace of the Exiles’ play increased with immediate benefit. Sailosi Tagicakibau raced into to score the team’s first try in the 48th minute. Lamb added the extras and contributed another three points from a penalty in the 51st minute.
Irish were enjoying a sustained period of pressure and Warwick and Peter Stringer, a half-time replacement for Toby Morland, were called upon to clear their lines.
The home team’s fourth try came in the 59th minute, once again Warwick was the orchestrator, intervening twice in the move that saw Barnes touch down on the left. Warwick kicked the conversion to 28-13.
A confidently struck drop goal by Jamie Lennard brought Irish to within a score with 12 minutes remaining. The well organised Munster defence and commitment at the breakdown meant Irish struggled to create a scoring chance.
In the 73rd minute Lamb kicked a penalty to touch five metres from the Munster try line. Nick Kennedy soared majestically in the resulting lineout to secure possession. The rest of the pack rallied round him and set a rolling maul that went for the tryline. The Exiles’ pack proved unstoppable with George Stowers being creditied with the touchdown, Lamb added the extras to reduce the gap to five points, 28-23.
With the full time whistle looming Munster managed the remaining time cleverly. In the 79th minute Warwick took his time over a penalty awarded for offside and secured the three points that pushed the lead back to a safe eight points. While referee Lewis played a few minutes of injury time Irish did not have time to create another scoring opportunity. And so the jack Wakefield Memorial Trophy stayed in Munster’s hands for another season.
Scorers: Munster Rugby: Tries: Varley (5), O’Donnell (30), Barnes 2 (40+2, 59); Conversions: Manning 3, Warwick. Penalty goal: Warwick (79). London Irish: Tries: Tagicakibau (48), Stowers (74); Conversions: Lamb 2. Drop goal: Lennard (61). Penalty goal: Lamb 2 (9, 51).
Scoring sequence (Munster first): 7-0, 7-3, 14-3, 21-3 (half-time)21-10, 21-13, 28-13, 28-16, 28-23, 31-23..
Munster Rugby: 15. D Hurley (rep: F Jones, 40), 14. D Riordain, 13. T Gleeson, 12. P Warwick (captain), 11. D Barnes, 10. J Manning (rep: S Deasy, 40), 9. T Morland (rep: P Stringer, 40), 1. D Ryan (rep: J Brugnaut, 40), 2. D Varley (rep: D Fogarty, 40), 3. T Buckley (rep: D Ryan, 59), 4. I Nagle, 5. B Holland, 6. T O’Donnell, 7. N Ronan, 8.D Leamy (rep: M O’Driscoll, 40).
London Irish: 15. D Armitage (captain)(rep: J Joseph, 80), 14. A Thompstone, 13. T Homer (rep: J Lennard, 30), 12. C Gower (rep: S Armitage, 60), 11. S Tagicakibau (rep: M Watson, 60), 10. R Lamb, 9.P Richards (rep: P Hodgson, 40), 1. D Murphy (rep: C Dermody, 40), 2. D Paice (rep: J Buckland, 40), 3. P Ion,, 4. G Johnson (rep: A Perry, 40), 5. K Roche (rep: N Kennedy, 40), 6. R Thorpe (rep: J Fisher, 40), 7. S Armitage (rep: D Danaher, 48), 8. C Hala’Ufia (rep: G Stowers, 40).
Referee: Alan Lewis (IRFU)
*Photos courtesy of Robbie Ambrose