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London Irish showed great character in overcoming not just the dreadful weather conditions but also a very physical Sale Sharks to record their second victory over the Cheshire based team in four weeks.
For the second Sunday afternoon in succession Madejski Stadium was shrouded in dark grey clouds and as kick off time arrived, the rain started and continued to pour in torrents throughout the game making conditions for handling and kicking treacherous. Despite that both teams tried to play running rugby, in the end however, kicking became the safer option as the game unfolded.
The visitors kicked off and proceeded to attack Irish at pace and with great determination. The home defence was strong and it was not long before it was Sale’s turn to be under the cosh. In the sixth minute a concerted forward led drive by Exiles created an opportunity for Barry Everitt to dive over the try line only for the referee to decide that he was held up. Just a minute later he was more fortunate as he stroked a penalty between the posts for Irish’s opening score.
The visitors lost no time in restoring the balance, Braam Van Straaten kicking a penalty in the 11th minute. Both teams probed each other as play switched to and fro across the half-way line. Irish were first to gain an advantage when Sale were penalised for not releasing the ball, they compounded the problem by complaining to the referee thereby losing another ten metres. Barry Everitt showed composure and skill in sending the ball between the uprights from 45 metres.
Everitt was unlucky after 20 minutes when another long range penalty bounced off the upright and was safely cleared.
Declan Danaher, who was injured in a tackle in the sixth minute, was forced to retire and was replaced by Paul Gustard.
As the half developed both sides attacked, however, the conditions made ball handling difficult and errors abounded. Whether it was the rain or the hangover from the previous game, an ugly edge developed to the play of the Sale forwards. They were to be penalised severely for this as both prop forwards were sin-binned by referee Mr Wayne Barnes. Stuart Turner was first to receive a yellow card for fighting in the 36th minute, Kevin Yates followed him two minutes later for persistent use of the boot. Seeking to capitalise on their numerical advantage Irish pressed Sharks as half-time approached. However, the Exiles found the visitors’ England fly half, Charlie Hodgson, in top class defensive kicking form and the half finished with Irish leading by 6-3.
The second half was to start at the same frantic pace of the first. Sharks pressed the Exiles deep in their half as the rain fell in torrents. Irish sought to capitalise on their temporary numerical advantage but the conditions mitigated against too much adventure, especially against a side known for its ability to counter-attack. Everitt was unlucky with an attempted drop goal. Rob Hoadley also suffered from the fates when he knocked on as he drove for the line. Paul Sackey was called upon to defend and showed great presence of mind and skill in kicking to touch.
As the half unfolded, time after time the Irish pack showed great character and discipline in refusing to be provoked into retaliation. Leading by example captain Neal Hatley inspired his colleagues to maintain the pressure and they had the visitors’ scrum in trouble. Bob Casey and his young associate, Nick Kennedy continued to disrupt the lineout, the latter made a series of crucial “steals” in the final twenty minutes that earned him the “man of the match” title. Throughout all the back row of Paul Gustard, Kieron Dawson and Phil Murphy tackled ferociously and made the vital metres when called upon to do so.
As normal time drew to a close Sale mounted a final challenge that took them just short of the home try line. Irish were called upon to defend as though their lives depended on it. That they did, without conceding a penalty, speaks volumes about the spirit in the squad. In fact, it was the visitors that conceded the crucial penalty – for crossing, and replacement fly half, Mark Mapletoft was able to clear.
It was Mapletoft who was at the centre of the frantic action as the game moved into injury time. In the 83rd minute he missed with a penalty attempt, then contributed a number of well-judged clearance ticks before successfully kicking a penalty in the 88th minute to add a little respectability to the final scoreline of 9-3.
Head Coach, Gary Gold said he “was happy to come away with the win. There was a lot going on out there, the guys gritted their teeth, stepped back and listened to the referee. As long as you that the odds will swing in your favour more often. I am very proud of them.”
Prior to kick off Jason Robinson, scorer of England’s crucial try in the World Cup final last weekend, received a standing ovation from the 7,488 fans in the stadium, a fitting tribute to an outstanding sportsman.
Scorers: London Irish: Penalty goals: Everitt 2 (8, 15), Mapletoft (88). Sale Sharks: Penalty goal: Van Straaten (11)
Scoring sequence (London Irish first): 3-0, 3-3, 6-3 (half-time) 9-3.
London Irish: M Horak, P Sackey, G Appleford (rep: N Greenstock, 71), R Hoadley, J Bishop, B Everitt (M Mapletoft, 71), D Edwards, N Hatley (Captain), N Drotske (A Flavin, 71), P Durant (rep: D Wheatley, 56 (sin-bin 77-87), N Kennedy (rep: K Burke 2-16), B Casey, D Danaher (rep: P Gustard, 25), K Dawson, P Murphy.
Sale Sharks: V Going, M Cueto (rep: P Devlin, 26), B Van Straaten (rep: J Baxendell, 53), G Bond, C Mayor, C Hodgson, B Redpath (Captain), K Yates, A Titterell (rep: M Cairns, 58), S Turner (rep: M Stewart, 58), D Schofield, J White (rep: B Stewart 38-43), S Pinkerton (rep: A Sanderson, 24), C Jones (rep: M Cairns, 38-45).
Referee: Mr W Barnes (RFU)