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Paddy Lennon reports from Madejski Stadium, Reading
“If I was London Irish then I would be very disappointed” the words of John Connolly, Director of Rugby at Bath, speaking after yesterday’s game at Madejski Stadium. His comments accurately reflected how the many thousands of Exiles’ supporters in the record crowd felt about the outcome of the game.
In an exciting eight minutes of injury time at the end of the second half London Irish had reduced Bath’s lead to one point thanks to a Barry Everitt penalty. Led by the forwards Irish had followed up that score by forcing the visitors to defend in their half. A ruck formed on the left and Darren Edwards fired a pass to the waiting Everitt. The replacement out-half struck the ball cleanly and it flew towards the posts until the final few metres when the wind forced it left and wide. The referee blew his whistle and so the score remained 21-20.
Arguably Irish should have had the game won long before that. A frustrating inability to finish off priceless scoring opportunities when near the try line and no luck when the line was breached, meant that valuable points went a begging. There were two occasions, one in each half, when indecision combined with handling errors spoiled try-scoring chances. Paul Sackey was also unlucky to be held up over the line in the xx minute.
It was Sackey who had opened the scoring for Irish in the 10th minute when he finished off a sparkling move by the home side to touch down in the right corner. Kieron Dawson stole a Bath lineout on the left, Geoff Appleford came speeding to take the pass and stretch the visitors’ defence before shipping the ball to Sackey who is unstoppable from 20 metres. Mark Mapletoft missed the difficult conversion from the touchline.
Both teams were having trouble with their lineout throwing as the swirling wind in the stadium bowl caused the ball to drift from its intended path. The wind also made kicking difficult as Mapletoft saw his first kickable penalty attempt go wide in the 17th minute.
The mid-point of the first half saw the conditions change for the worse albeit temporarily, the wind grew stronger and the rain poured down. Both teams continued to seek the crucial advantage, that was to come for the visitors in the shape of an intervention by the referee in the 24th minute. For reasons that were beyond most people present Mr Spreadbury decided to send Darren Edwards to the sin-bin. Chris Malone, Bath’s fly half kicked the resulting penalty to register his team’s first points.
With one man down Irish were forced to defend. While they were able to contain Bath in the loose, the Exiles’ pack was no match for the strong and physical visitors’ forwards in the tight. It was no surprise that Bath sought to exploit this superiority and were rewarded with a push over try by Duncan Bell in the 31st minute. Malone missed the conversion.
Three minutes later Mapletoft tied the scores with a well-taken penalty from 40 metres, he was to restore the lead with his second, successful penalty in the 38th minute. This penalty resulted from a cynical block by the visitors’ scrum half on Mapletoft as the latter tried to follow up an overhead chip. Wood was sin-binned for his efforts. The lead only lasted until the fourth minute of injury time when Malone kicked his second penalty to leave the score 11-11 at half-time.
Irish were the livelier of the two sides after the re-start and were able to restore their lead in the 45th minute with Mapletoft’s third penalty, this one from 45 meters.
Bath reinforced their pack in the 48th minute and benefited four minutes later when they set a rolling maul off the back of a lineout on the Irish 22 meter line and powered their way over the Exiles’ try line to score through Lee Mears. Malone converted easily for a score of 14-18.
As the game entered the final quarter Irish tried valiantly to make the vital breakthrough but were let down by basic errors or bad luck. In a latter context another thrilling burst by Paul Sackey down the right saw him break clear and race 20 metres to the try line only for him to be tackled and held up before he could ground the ball. Irish kept up the pressure, Rod Hoadley was tackled just short of the try line.
Phil Murphy and Barry Everitt replaced Chris Sheasby and Mark Mapletoft respectively in the 62nd minute. Everitt who was making his 100th appearance for the club, soon experienced mixed fortunes with his kicking. A penalty in the 70th minute went between the posts for three points to reduce the lead to one point, another kick four minutes later from 50 metres went wide.
In a frantic, exciting finish Chris Malone struck what proved to be a match-winning drop goal from 42 metres for a score of 21-17. The game was deep in injury time when Everitt’s penalty reduced the deficit to one point, only to be followed by the disappointment of the errant drop goal attempt.
The author of these match reports rarely comments on the performance of the referee, however, yesterday a number of Mr Spreadbury’s decisions left him very confused. Why was Darren Edwards sent to the sin-bin? Why was Chris Sheasby not awarded a penalty try when Martyn Wood deliberately blocked his attempted free kick? Why was Irish not awarded a penalty in the final minutes when Nick Kennedy was tackled from a blatantly offside position? The view from the media gallery is obviously different from down on the pitch!
Scorers: London Irish: Try: Sackey 10min. Penalty goals: Mapletoft 3 (34, 38, 45) Everitt 2 (70, 85). Bath: Tries: Bell 31, Mears 52. Conversion: Malone. Drop goal: Malone (79). Penalty goals: Malone 2 (24, 40+4)
Scoring sequence (London Irish first): 5-0, 5-3, 5-8, 8-8, 11-8, 11-11 (half-time) 14-11, 14-18, 17-18, 17-21, 20-21.
London Irish: M Horak, P Sackey, G Appleford, R Hoadley (rep: K Barrett, 79), J Bishop, M Mapletoft (rep: B Everitt, 62), D Edwards (sin-bin 24-34), N Hatley, N Drotske (rep: A Flavin, 79), R Hardwick (rep: D Wheatley, 48), R Strudwick (captain), B Casey (rep: N Kennedy, 74), D Danaher, K Dawson, C Sheasby (rep: P Murphy, 62).
Bath: P Sampson, A Crockett, A Higgins, S Davey, W Human, C Malone, M Wood (sin-bin 38-48)(rep: R Blake, 75), D Flatman (rep: D Barnes, 70), J Humphreys (rep: L Mears, 48)(captain), D Bell (rep: M Stevens, 48), S Borthwick, R Fidler, A Beattie, M Lipman (rep: J Scaysbrook, 75), I Feau’nati.
Referee: T Spreadbury (RFU)