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London Irish had an unhappy start to the New Year as they went down to a 16 point defeat to a determined Northampton Saints team at Madejski Stadium on Sunday last.
Facing their second, top four team in the space of eight days, the Exiles knew that the two Premiership matches over the Christmas and New Year period would provide a measure of just how far the team had progressed since the start of the season. However, a rash of injuries to key players over the past two weeks undermined the validity of making any such assessment.
London Irish started Sunday’s game with only one first choice, back row player – Phil Murphy, in the starting fifteen. Paul Gustard who failed a late fitness test on his shoulder, joined Declan Danaher, Kieron Dawson and Chris Sheasby on the injury list. That list also included Rob Hardwick and Barry Everitt, Ryan Strudwick had the misfortune to be added in the course of the game. Given the composition of the squad, losing seven key players at any one time was sure to impact on the team’s performance. And so it proved.
Playing in front of a five-figure attendance for the second week in succession, Irish started well and had the better of the early exchanges. In a lively opening quarter, the home team continually pressured the Saints who struggled to cope with the physicality and pace of the Exiles’ attack. Prompted by Mark Mapletoft, Irish probed the visiting defence which struggled to clear its lines, showing uncharacteristic indecision.
The hard work of the Irish pack laid the foundations for the first try in the 19th minute. Kieran Roche made the vital meters down the left before passing to Mapletoft. The fly half gave Paul Sackey the pass that enabled him to burst through on the angle and score just left of the posts. Mapletoft converted and added a penalty three minutes later to give Irish a 10-0 lead.
A misdirected kick by Mapletoft in the 25th minute proved to be expensive for the home side. The kick was collected by Bruce Reihana, who used his power to penetrate deep into the Irish half. A ruck formed just short of the home goal line. The Northampton pack patiently worked the ball through phase after phase before Rob Hunter was forced over for a try. Hunter was injured in the process and had to leave the field on a stretcher (the former London Irish player fully recovered in hospital). Paul Grayson converted and added a penalty ten minutes later to tie the score at ten points each.
The half had moved into injury time when a long range drop goal attempt by Mapletoft drifted just left of the upright. Grayson’s restart kick went straight into touch giving Irish a scrum on the Saints’ 22. Darren Edwards picked up the ball at the base of the scrum, passed to Geoff Appleford coming up at speed on his left, he in turn found Michael Horak who had too much pace for the remaining defenders and touched down in the corner. Mapletoft missed the conversion for a half-time score of 15-10.
The first twenty minutes of the second half was to halve a decisive impact on the outcome of the game. Irish lost their captain, Ryan Strudwick, to a recurrance of a shoulder injury at half-time, Neal Hatley took over the captaincy.
The half was only two minutes old when Northampton reduced the arrears to two points through Grayson’s second penalty of the match. Encouraged by the early success the England fly half was to go on to have the dominant influence on the outcome of the game.
In the 44th minute a well-judged chip ahead by Grayson was collected by Reihana, who caught the ball cleanly, side-stepped Michael Horak and raced through to score. Grayson kicked the difficult conversion from out near the right touchline to give his team the ead for the first time in the match.
Graysoon was to consolidate that lead with two penalty kicks in the 52nd and 59th minutes as Irish found themselves on the receiving end of some indifferent decision-making by Mr Pearson. The game had just entered its final quarter when Irish mounted what was to be their final serious challenge. Naka Drotske powered up through mid-field, he was tackled and the ball was taken up by Nick Kennedy – on as a replacement for Strudwick. Irish drove towards the Saints’ right corner. Led by the forwards the Exiles laid siege to the Saints’ line which was defended resolutely. Irish turned over the ball in contact and the danger was cleared and with it went the home side’s last realistic chance of securing a result.
The initiative passed to Northampton and Grayson once again resumed his role as conductor in chief. His fifth successfully penalty stretched the lead to fourteen points. As the clock counted down the minutes it was all Saints’ pressure. Scrum-half, Mark Robinson was rewarded for a consistent afternoon’s work when he burst through in the 83rd minute to score an individual try under the posts. Fittingly, Grayson finished off the scoring with the conversion for a final score of 15-36.
“An unacceptable second half performance” was London Irish head coach, Gary Gold’s post-match verdict. “We made too many mistakes and let them back into the game,” he said, “I thought that we looked dangerous when we had ball in hand, but we gave them possession at key times. I am very disappointed.”
Scorers: London Irish: Try: Sackey (19min), Horak (40+6); Conversion: Mapletoft. Penalty goal: Mapletoft (22). Northampton Saints: Tries: Hunter (27), Reihana (44), Robinson (83). Conversions: Grayson 3. Penalty goals: Grayson 5 (37, 42, 54, 59, 64).
Scoring sequence (London Irish first): 7-0, 10-0, 10-7, 10-10, 15-10 (half-time) 15-13, 15-20, 15-23, 15-26, 15-29, 15-36.
London Irish: M Horak, P Sackey, G Appleford, R Hoadley (rep: N Greenstock, 65), J Bishop, M Mapletoft, D Edwards (rep: K Barrett, 75), N Hatley, N Drotske (A Flavin, 77), P Durant (rep: D Wheatley, 59), R Strudwick (Captain)(rep: N Kennedy, 40), B Casey, K Roche, M Haslett, P Murphy.
Northampton Saints: N Beal, B Reihana, C Hyndman (rep: J Howard, 16)(rep: S Drahm, 40+3-half-time), J Leslie (Captain), B Cohen, P Grayson, M Robinson, T Smith (rep: T Taumepeau, 83), S Thompson (rep: D Richmond, 83), T
Taumepeau (rep: C Budgen, 54), R Hunter (rep: M Soden, 30)(rep: D Richmond, 54-64), J Phillips (rep: M Lord, 8), M Connors, D Fox, A Blowers.
Referee: D Pearson (RFU)