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The Exiles outthought, outfought and outplayed their Irish opponents as they produced a clinical 23-17 victory that will live long in the memory of the 21,000 souls who were privileged enough to witness the contest firsthand.
Fly half Ryan Lamb may take the plaudits for a near faultless kicking display but this was a truly team performance that not only delighted the home support but brought broad smiles to the coaches watching high up in the stadium gantry.
It was not only Irish versus Munster on the pitch, it was green against red in the stands as the home fans constantly had to try and outchant the thousands of supporters who had travelled dutifully over from Limerick for the match.
And it was the away fans who had the most to shout about in the opening skirmishes as Munster started in the manner that befitted their position as tournament top seeds.
Fly half Ronan O’Gara got them underway with a routine penalty in the fourth minute but the Exiles were lightening quick to hit back as Lamb continued his fine form from the kicking tee with two sweetly struck kicks that edged his side into a 6-3 lead with 10 minutes gone.
With the lead came renewed confidence and Irish began to control the tempo of the match. While many may have come to Reading expecting Toby Booth’s exciting side to run with ball in hand at every opportunity, instead they opted for a more a more measured approach utilising their full resources to full effect.
They peppered Munster’s half with soaring kicks that starved the visitors of territory and forced them into a series of mistakes which Lamb was in no mood to let go unpunished.
All across pitch the men in green and white excelled. Nick Kennedy was masterful in the line out, Paul Hodgson outstanding in the loose, Seilala Mapusua a wrecking ball in both defence and attack.
Every Munster attack was met by a wall of green as Dave Ellis’ finely tuned defence excelled and their cause was made harder when Sam Tuitupuo was deservedly sin binned for an illegal tackle on Hodgson.
Lamb added six more points in Tuitupuo’s absence, with another fine penalty and a smartly taken drop goal as the hosts established a vital 12 point lead with five minutes of the half to play.
The intensity of the match was at times breathtaking and there was a period of play just after the half hour mark where possession toed and froed with enthralling regularity in five ceaseless, frantic minutes of play.
O’Gara added a late penalty to reduce the deficit to 15-6 and only the post denied Lamb from restoring the 12 point lead as his drop goal narrowly missed its target.
The half-time break did nothing to dull the intensity and within a minute of the restart Irish were able to inflict a near fatal blow to Tony McGahan’s side as Topsy Ojo showed his predatory instinct and intercepted a stray pass on halfway before doing what he does best and charging home for a scintillating opening try.
Lamb’s conversion went wide but Irish had a 14 point advantage and Munster were stuttering, so much so, that the normally reliable boot of O’Gara was found wanting three minutes later, as he missed a routine kick at goal.
However, the Irish international refound his range 10 minutes later with a kick that left the score at 20-9.
Once again the match changed course as Munster took firm control with the kind of dominant rugby that has defined their distinguished European history. They moved ominously forward towards the Exiles’ line, but were again denied by some heroic defensive work.
One try saving tackle by Delon Armitage on prop Tony Buckley was worth the entrance fee alone and in the very next phase the ball was knocked on and the danger temporarily contained.
But back Munster came and O’Gara added three more points to leave just eight points between the two sides. It was nail biting stuff and four minutes later the tension went up a notch when Armitage stepped up to take a penalty five metres inside his own half.
An eerie silence fell across Madejski but was soon replaced by a deafening roar as his kick sailed high and true and between the posts to restore the 11 point lead.
The drama was not over and a slaloming run from substitute David Wallace gave O’Gara the platform to chip a kick through to Tuitupuo who scored a consolation try that earned Munster a crucial losing bonus point.
But when referee Christophe Berdos’s whistle finally brought the match to an end there was only one Irish winner, London Irish.
Tries: Ojo (40)
Penalties: Lamb (7, 10, 20, 36); Armitage (72)
Drop Goal: Lamb (39)
Tries: Tuitupuo (80)
Penalty goals: O’Gara (4, 37, 54, 68)
Scoring sequence (LI first): 0-3, 3-3, 6-3, 9-3, 12-3, 15-3, 15-6. HT. 20-6, 20-9, 20-12, 23-12, 23-17.
London Irish: 15. Delon Armitage; 14. Topsy Ojo; 13. Elvis Seveali'i (Bowden, 70); 12. Seilala Mapusua; 11. Sailosi Tagicakibau (Joseph, 69); 10. Ryan Lamb; 9. Paul Hodgson; 1. Clarke Dermody; 2. James Buckland (Paice, 56); 3. Faan Rautenbach (Corbisiero, 56); 4. Nick Kennedy; 5. Bob Casey (Garvey, 69); 6. Kieran Roche; 7. Declan Danaher (Hala'ufia, 52); 8. George Stowers.
Not Used: Lahiff, Allinson.
Munster: J. Murphy, Howlett, Earls (Warwick, 69), Tuitupou, D. Hurley, O'Gara, Stringer (Williams, 73), du Preez (Hayes, 64), Varley, Buckley (Horan, 64), O'Callaghan, D. Ryan (O'Driscoll, 56), Leamy, Ronan (Wallace, 32), Coughlan.