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The outcome of the match remained in the balance until the 78th minute when the Exiles’ replacement fly half, Ryan Lamb struck the second of two outstanding, long range penalties that gave his team what proved to be a decisive three point winning margin.
Irish still had to endure a final two minutes that felt like two hours for the many travelling supporters in the capacity crowd. To their relief, the defence which had been the key to what had happened over the previous 78 minutes held out and London Irish recorded an historic victory that upset the predictions of many pundits.
The foundations for the victory were built on courage and commitment in defence as the Exiles from 1 to 15 put their bodies on the line to prevent the home team crossing the try line. At the heart of the defensive effort was the pack that were outstanding in the set pieces. The forwards matched Leinster in the scrum and Bob Casey and Nick Kennedy produced another masterclass of lineout jumping - between them they stole four Leinster throw-ins.
Irish also competed vigourously at the breakdown where Declan Danaher, Steffon Armitage and Chris Hala’Ufia caused problems throughout the match. Not only did they secure precious turnover ball, they also ensured the home team suffered from poor quality possession.
Heavy rain in the Irish capital through the morning and early afternoon threatened to ruin the match as a spectacle, however, three hours before kick-off the clouds cleared to leave a cool and dry evening. The players were left with a playing surface that was wet but otherwise in good condition.
Jonathan Sexton kicked-off the match for Leinster and set in train 15 minutes of exceptional rugby action as his team launched wave after wave of attack. Not only were the attacks undertaken with pace, they were also of a level of intensity and physicality that had the home crowd cheering and visiting supporters concerned.
With Brian O’Driscoll and his talented back line snapping at the heels of an aggressive back, the home team made clear their attacking intent. Isa Nacewa and Jonathan Sexton ensured that Irish were pinned back in their 22 with a series of tactical kicks. Unsurprisingly, Tom Homer was on the receiving end of the early kicks and the 19-year-old showed courage and skill in catching the ball and responding constructively to the challenge.
Across the Irish backline Seilala Mapusua and Elvis Seveali’i gave no quarter and Sailosi Tagicakibau ensured that Shane Horgan got little chance to attack down the right wing.
Having resisted the opening assault, Irish began to secure some possession. Paul Hodgson's box kicks from the base of scrum and maul provided momentum. When the scrum half passed back he found two reliable colleagues in Chris Malone and Peter Hewat. The combined experience and kicking skills of the two Australians proved invaluable on the night. Time and again their long clearance kicks provided precious relief.
Leinster went ahead through a Sexton penalty in the second minute when Irish were penalised for killing the ball. Seven minutes later Hewat levelled the score with a 42 metre penalty when the home team were penalised for not rolling clear. Sexton struck again in the 11th minute to regain the lead.
The score prompted another series of Leinster attacks in which Nacewa featured time and again. The work that Defence Coach Dave Ellis has undertaken with the Exiles paid dividends as the tackle count mounted. Hodgson made a telling tackle on O’Driscoll as the Ireland captain saw a glimpse of space in which to attack.
Both teams were reduced to 14 when David Paice and Jamie Heaslip were sent to the sin-bin for their roles in a fracas in which neither was the chief protagonist.
As the half unfolded there was no let up in either the intensity or physicality of the contest. Sexton had a chance to stretch his team’s lead with a penalty kick in the 38th minute, however while he had the distance, his direction was off. Instead it was Peter Hewat who had both distance and direction with his 45 metre penalty kick in the final minute. His kick levelled the score as both teams left for the interval.
Hewat had the opportunity to give Irish the lead just two minutes after the re-start but his 40 metre kick to the left of the posts drifted just wide of the left upright.
As in the opening period Leinster mounted another sequence of attacks but again encountered formidable resistance. The difference this time was the growing confidence of the Irish team.
A sequence of little exchanges were telling – a Casey lineout steal, Hodgson and Malone’s clearance kicks, and Hala’Ufia’s exceptional work at ruck and maul. The pendulum slowly shifted in the Exiles’ favour.
Ryan Lamb and Danie Coetzee replaced Chris Malone and David Paice in the 56th minute as the coaches introduced fresh players. Hewat attempted a penalty from three metres inside the Exiles’ half but it drifted left of the left post.
With the game moving into the final quarter the tension was mounting as both teams sought the decisive score. Hala’Ufia struck again in the 67th minute forcing Leinster to concede a penalty. Lamb calmly stepped forward and struck the ball beautifully from 49 metres between the uprights to give his team a crucial lead.
Jamie Lennard replaced the injured Seveali’i in the 68th minute to make his debut. He was immediately caught up in more defensive duties as Leinster threw everything at the visitors. Once again the effort was in vain. A telling Lamb clearance, a Danaher steal at the line out, a Homer tackle on D’Arcy, all brought relief and confidence to Irish and their supporters.
With five minutes remaining Sexton struck his third successful penalty of the evening to level the scores and set up a frenetic finale. The tension penetrated to everyone in the stadium not least the players. With Leinster driving for the decisive score Horgan knocked on crucially giving Irish the chance to clear from the resulting scrum.
There were three minutes to go when Casey stole another Leinster lineout and Irish counter-attacked. The home side’s flanker, Sean O’Brien was caught offside and Irish had the penalty. Once again Lamb stepped forward. A commendable silence descended on the RDS as the 23-year-old composed himself and sent the ball arching over 48 metres between the uprights for what proved to be the decisive score.
Irish had to endure an agonising 90 seconds of pressure before referee Poite blew the whistle that brought the match to an end.
The Sky Sports commentators awarded the ‘man of the match’ to Bob Casey, a fitting reward to an outstanding captain back in his home province.
Scorers: Leinster: Penalty goals: Sexton 3 (2, 11, 75). London Irish: Penalty goals: Hewat 2 (9, 39), Lamb 2 (68, 78).
Scoring sequence (Leinster first): 3-0, 3-3, 6-3, 6-6 (half-time) 6-9, 9-9, 9-12.
Leinster: 15. I Nacewa (rep: R Kearney, 54), 14. S Horgan, 13. B O’Driscoll, 12. G D’Arcy (rep: R Kearney, 28-32), 11. L Fitzgerald, 10. J Sexton, 9. E Reddan, 1. C Healy, 2. J Fogarty (rep: B Jackman, 54), 3. M Ross, 4. L Cullen (captain), 5. N Hines, 6. K McLaughlin (rep: S O’Brien, 54), 7. S Jennings, 8. J Heaslip (sin-bin: 26-36).
London Irish: 15. P Hewat, 14. T Homer, 13. E Seveali’i (rep: J Leonard, 68), 12. S Mapusua, 11. S Tagicakibau, 10. C Malone (rep: R Lamb, 56), 9. P Hodgson, 1. C Dermody, 2. D Paice (sin-bin: 26-36)(rep: D Coetzee, 56), 3. F Rautenbach (rep: P Ion, 62), 4. N Kennedy, 5. B Casey (captain), 6. D Danaher, 7. S Armitage (rep: D Coetzee, 28-36), 8. C Hala’Ufia.
Referee: R Poite (FFR)