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Having gone down to a converted try by Andy Goode in the second minute, London Irish showed great character and patience in playing themselves back into the game at Vicarage Road on Sunday.
On one of the first wet, grey and cold afternoons of the winter in north-west London the home side started the match in lively fashion. For the second time this season Irish found themselves trailing by seven points before five minutes had elapsed. It surely is significant that on both occasions the tries have been scored through brilliant flashes of inspiration by opposition fly-halves. Four weeks ago it was Shane Drahm at Northampton who did the damage, on Sunday it was Andy Goode. The talented Saracens back took a pass at speed from his scrum half, Morgan Williams, in midfield and raced through to touch down on the right. Goode converted his own try.
A Barry Everitt penalty three minutes later steadied the Exiles. The score was neutralised in the eight minute when Goode dropped a goal from 40 metres. At this stage the Saracens’ fly half was proving to be quite a handful for Irish. He tested Michael Horak with a couple of “Garryowens” and was distributing the ball among his backs to telling effect.
As the opening quarter developed, Irish kept coming back at the home team, Horak was prominent in a searing burst up the right wing. In the 13th minute another drive into the Saracens half was illegally stopped resulting in a penalty. Darren Edwards took it quickly and passed to Paul Sackey playing temporarily at centre, he made vital metres before passing to his captain, Ryan Strudwick who powered over twenty-five metres to the right of the posts.
It was the turn of Saracens’ highly rated, right wing Richard Haughton to show his class in the 18th minute when he broke from 40 metres, chipped the ball over the advancing Horak and raced in for the try in the right corner. Goode converted and added a penalty for a rare “full house” of scores four minutes later. His team was leading by 20-8 and the game had just entered the second quarter!
Everitt was to reduce the lead with his second successful penalty in the 26th minute. Irish, in particular the back row of Declan Danaher, Kieron Dawson and Phil Murphy, were harassing the men in black at every opportunity with consequent disruption to the pattern of play. Such was the effectivness of their efforts that in the 32nd minute Goode found himself isolated taking a proverbial hospital pass from Williams. He did not see Ryan Strudwick coming in to tackle him on his blind side, the two collided and Goode fell stunned to the ground. As a precaution he was carried from the field on a stretcher, happily he recovered later and was able to watch the second half. After discussion with the touch judge the referee decided to sin-bin Strudwick for what he described as a “dangerous tackle”.
Nicky Little replaced Goode but it was 14 man Irish who were to look the more dangerous as the half drew to a close. The visitors’ courage had its reward in the fifth minute of injury time when Paul Sackey was able to finish off fine passing by Darren Edwards and Kieron Dawson to score on the right. Everitt converted to narrow the deficit to 20-18. Little was to add a penalty just before the referee blew for half-time and a score of 23-18.
Irish were to dominate the opening exchanges of the second half but the home defence was resolute in resisting the visitors’ try-scoring efforts. An Everitt penalty was the Exiles only reward for fifteen minutes of sustained pressure.
Little was successful with a penalty for Saracens from 40 metres in the 56th minute. Not to be outdone Everitt responded with a penalty for Irish from a similar distance three minutes later.
Saracens lock Tony Roques found himself in the sin-bin for persistent handling of the ball on the ground in the ruck in the 61st minute. Irish were able to exploit his absence in the 63rd minute when following a turn-over in midfield, Everitt passed to Rob Hoadley and he to Geoff Appleford who burst clear of two defenders to race in and score under the posts from 30 metres. Everitt converted and added his fifth penalty two minutes later to give his team a 34-26 lead with 15 minutes on the clock.
Irish took control as the clock counted down, playing conservatively and forcing Saracens to play in their half. Saracens managed a consolation try through Haughton in the 4th minute of injury time but it was too little, too late.
London Irish Head Coach, Gary Gold, said he was happy with the result which moves Irish to third in the Premiership, “We showed good character when we didn’t play well by our standards. We were dangerous when we had the ball in hand. I was impressed with Saracens. When they kept the ball and moved it through phases, they had us under real pressure.”
Scorers: Saracens: Tries: Goode 2min, Haughton 18, 84. Conversions: Goode 2. Drop goal: Goode 8. Penalty goals: Goode 22, Little 2 (40+7, 56). London Irish: Tries: Strudwick 1, Sackey 40+5, Appleford 63; Conversions: Everitt 2; Penalty goals: Everitt 5 (8, 26, 43, 59, 65).
Scoring sequence (Saracens first): 7-0, 7-3, 10-3, 10-8, 17-8, 20-8, 20-11, 20-18, 23-18 (half-time) 23-21, 26-21, 26-24, 26-31, 26-34, 31-34.
Referee: G Ashton-Jones (RFU)