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A dramatic final seven minutes of this hard fought encounter saw the lead switch from the Sharks as a Steve Hanley try, converted by Braam Van Straaten gave the home side a one point lead with three minutes to go. They pressed Irish to defend deep as the clock ticked down. A classic Everitt clearance returned play to the Sharks’ 22. Irish stole the resulting line-out and set up a series of rucks. An initial drop goal attempted by Barry Everitt drifted left of the posts. With three minutes of injury time on the clock, Barry finally had the time and space needed to drop what proved to be the vital score.
The excitement continued to the final whistle when, with seconds to go, Kieron Dawson was unlucky to knock on as he was tackled with the try line at his mercy.
Irish deserved the victory, the first over the Cheshire side for three years, but the Exiles had to work hard for it on a cold and damp evening at Sale’s new home at Edgeley Park in Stockport.
The game had started at a frantic pace with both sides anxious to secure the early advantage, that was to go to the visitors when Barry Everitt was successful with his first penalty goal kick after ten minutes. Just two minutes later the lead was to switch to Sharks when their lively inside centre Graeme Bond blocked an attempted clearance kick by Michael Horak and rushed in to score. Braam Van Straaten had no difficulty with the conversion.
Over the next twenty minutes both defences were put to the test as the pressure was applied to create try-scoring opportunities. Both teams moved the ball through phases but it was Irish who were the more effective forcing the home side to concede penalties. Everitt was successful with three kicks in the 14th, 23rd and 29th minutes to give his team a five point lead as the opening half moved into its final ten minutes. Van Straaten was to reduce the lead to two points in the 32nd minute. Just two minutes later Irish succeeded in executing a move that they had been trying through the half.
A burst by Michael Horak pulled the home defence to the right of the field, the ball was quickly recycled by Darren Edwards and passed through hands over to the left where Rob Hardwick was waiting to power over in the left corner from five metres for a rare try by the prop forward. Everitt converted with a well-judged kick from the touchline.
Van Straaten was to kick another penalty just before the referee blew his whistle for half time.
The opening of the second half was a mirror image of the first. Both teams trying to move the ball at pace and testing each other’s defence. As in the opening period the first successful penalty fell to Irish and Everitt made no mistake from 30 metres to the right of the posts.
The Exiles continued to defend their lead as the half developed. The Sharks' inside centre, Bond, and both wings – Cueto and Hanley - were prominent as they tried to break down the Irish defence. The welcome return of Charlie Hodgson at fly-half enabled the home side to lift the pace of the game. Van Straaten and Everitt exchanged penalties with the former kicking his fourth in the 62nd minute to narrow the gap to 19-25.
Irish were called upon to use their experience and skill as the final quarter unfolded. In the lineout, the Exiles’ forwards performed superbly, as they had throughout the match, ensuring pressure continued to be applied. The defence held until the 76th minute when a rare moment of confusion in midfield allowed Sharks to recycle the ball quickly to Hanley who had the power to burst through for the try. Vna Straaten’s conversion set up the frenetic final minutes relieved only by Everitt’s cool head and accurate boot!
Head Coach, Gary Gold was full of praise for his team’s performance. “That was a very difficult game against a very strong Sharks’ team. We stuck to our guns throughout and deserved the victory.” Gary complimented Barry Everitt on “an outstanding kicking display. We are fortunate to have two great fly-halves in Barry and Mark.”
The victory was marred by a serious injury to Chris Sheasby’s right eye at the end of the first half.
Scorers: Sharks: Tries: Bond 12min, Hanley 76. Conversions: Van Straaten. Penalty goals: Van Straaten 4 (32, 40, 47, 62min). London Irish: Try: Hardwick 36; Conversions: Everitt ; Drop Goal: Everitt 83. Penalty goals: Everitt 6 (10, 14, 23, 29, 43, 58).
Scoring sequence (Sharks first): 0-3, 7-3, 7-6, 7-9, 7-12, 10-19, 13-19 (half-time) 13-22, 16-22, 16-25, 19-25, 26-25, 26-28.
Referee: R Maybank (RFU)