The London Irish players and management frequently talk about measuring themselves against the best. Well the best team in England, the current Guinness Premiership champions, came to Madejski Stadium this afternoon and went away defeated.
Leicester Tigers lost to a London Irish team that competed throughout the 80 minutes – whether it was in the scrum, the lineout, the breakdown or in the backs, there was no questioning the courage and commitment of the Exiles.
They stood toe-to-toe with a talented, multi-international Leicester Tigers team that typically did not concede a centimetre of territory without a fight and who did not stop competing until referee Barnes blew the final whistle.
On an afternoon when even the fickle weather gods co-operated – the morning rain gave way to bright autumn sunshine, it felt as if both teams wanted to kick-on from where they had left off in the Guinness Premiership final in May. On that occasion in front of a packed Twickenham, the Tigers had the rub of the green.
This afternoon in front of a wonderfully partisan crowd of 16, 199 spread across all four stands, London Irish made their own luck, refusing to let the Tigers settle and impose their style of play. Instead a combination of aggressive attack in the set pieces, astute tactical kicking and a willingness to counter-attack with ball in hand when the opportunity arose, meant that the home team had the better of both territory and possession.
The match started at a frenetic pace. London Irish kicked off and ran at the Leicester defence who had to make two try-saving tackles before the match was 90 seconds old. Two clever flourishes from Elvis Seveali’i and Ryan Lamb almost exposed the visitors.
The Tigers were unlucky to lose their England prop forward, Julian White in the fourth minute with a hamstring injury. His place was taken by Martin Castrogiovanni. The Italian forward was to suffer a torrid afternoon as the Irish pack had their experienced opponents under pressure in the scrum for much of the match.
Lamb had an opportunity to give his side the lead with a penalty in the 12th minute. In the event he scuffed his kick and missed. Leicester’s response was to take play into the Irish half. Former Exiles’ player, Jeremy Staunton missed with a drop goal attempt in the 14th minute but opened the scoring a minute later with a cleanly struck penalty from 18 metres.
With no let up in the pace of the match and given the greasy conditions underfoot, both teams were guilty of an above average number of handling errors. One of these led to a scrum for Irish whose outstanding front row forced Tigers to offend and concede the penalty. This time Lamb struck the ball beautifully between the uprights from 44 metres to level the score.
Either side of the 20 minute mark the contest developed at pace. One minute Irish were defending brilliantly with Paul Hodgson in the thick of the action, ably assisted by Tom Homer. Seilala Mapasua who had an outstanding match, forced a crucial knock-on, Nick Kennedy stole a Leicester lineout on the Exiles’ five metre line.
Not to be outdone Leicester showed their skills with Dan Hipkiss and Scott Hamilton in particular making threatening runs. In addition, the back row contest between two sets of competitive forwards was developing. England Manager Martin Johnson was watching from the West Stand and was doubtless trying to assess the merits of Steffon Armitage and Lewis Moody for the England openside flanker position in the autumn internationals.
Armitage forced Jordan Crane to give away a penalty for an illegal tackle in the 29th minute and Lamb calmly sent the ball between the uprights from 44 metres out on the left to give his team the lead.
The score encouraged Bob Casey and his team to even greater effort. A cut-out pass by Lamb to Sailosi Tagicakibau saw the winger speed off down the left wing to touch down in the corner only to be called back for a forward pass.
Irish sensed that the Tigers were struggling. George Stowers made a telling intervention in midfield when he took the momentum out of a Leicester attacking move. Hodgson took a quick tap penalty that resulted in a late tackle. Inevitably, the unrelenting Irish pressure forced the penalty and Lamb sent the ball between the uprights to give his team a 9-3 half-time lead.
Within a minute of the re-start the visitors had reduced the lead to three points thanks to Staunton’s second penalty after Irish were penalised for not releasing in the tackle.
Within four minutes Leicester conceded a penalty for the same offence and Lamb made them pay with his fourth successful strike.
A well judged kick by Staunton secured an attacking field position for Leicester inside the Exiles’ 22 on their right. In the resulting lineout it was Nick Kennedy, king of the ‘stealers’, that rose majestically and stole the throw.
Irish were caught offside in the 55th minute and Staunton made his former team pay with his third successful penalty that reduced the gap to 12-9.
Both teams introduced a number of replacements either side of the mid-point of the half. While Irish worked tirelessly to extend their lead, the Tigers continued to defend capably and counter-attack as the opportunity arose. The tension on the pitch could be felt in the stands as the feeling that the next score could be critical.
More pressure by the Exiles caught the Tigers offside in the 68th minute and Lamb kicked his fifth penalty from 20 metres to the left of the uprights. At 15-9 the Exiles had a cushion, but one that was vulnerable to a possible Leicester try.
Two minutes later the cushion was reduced to just three points once again when Ben Youngs, a 68th minute replacement for James Grindal, kicked his team’s fourth penalty.
Four minutes later Lamb restored his team’s six point lead with penalty number six but there was no let up in the intensity of the contest as both teams sought the decisive score with five minutes remaining.
George Stowers made another telling intervention, his tackle forced a crucial knock-on as his team’s fitness ensured there was no let up in attack. In the final minute Leicester were penalised for not releasing out near the right touchline deep in their half but Lamb’s kick drifted across the face of the posts to leave the final score 18-12 to Irish.
Scorers: London Irish: Penalty goals: Lamb 6 (19, 29, 37, 45, 68, 74). Leicester Tigers: Penalty goals: Staunton 3 (15, 41, 56) Youngs B (70).
Scoring sequence (London Irish first): 0-3, 3-3, 6-3, 9-3 (half-time) 9-6, 12-6, 12-9, 15-9, 15-12, 18-12.
London Irish: 15. P Hewat, 14. T Homer, 13. E Seveali’i, 12. S Mapusua, 11. S Tagicakibau, 10. R Lamb, 9. P Hodgson, 1. C Dermody (rep: D Murphy, 68), 2. D Coetzee (rep: D Paice, 55), 3. P Ion (rep: F Rautenbach, 63), 4. N Kennedy, 5. B Casey (captain)(rep: K Roche, 55), 6. G Stowers, 7. S Armitage, 8. C Hala’Ufia (rep: A Perry, 71).
Leicester Tigers: 15. S Hamilton, 14. J Murphy, 13. D Hipkiss, 12. A Allen, 11. A Amorosino, 10. J Staunton, 9. J Grindal (rep: B Youngs, 68), 1. M Ayerza, 2. G Chuter, 3. J White (rep: M Castrogiovanni, 4), 4. L Deacon, 5. R Blaze (rep: G Parling, 54), 6. T Croft (rep: B Deacon, 3-9), 7. L Moody (rep: B Deacon, 68-71), 8. J Crane.
Referee: W Barnes (RFU)