London Irish take an 11-point lead into next week’s Greene King IPA Championship Play-off Final second leg against Yorkshire Carnegie.
The Exiles left Headingley Carnegie with a 29-18 first leg victory thanks to tries from Danny Hobbs-Awoyemi and Fergus Mulchrone coupled with the boot of Tommy Bell.
Bell and Ford traded penalties in the opening three minutes of the contest, with Carnegie demonstrating their attacking intent from the first whistle.
Making it two from two for the evening moments later, Bell punished Carnegie for infringing at the breakdown. Leading by three points with 15 minutes on the clock, Irish went further ahead through Hobbs-Awoyemi, who left three Carnegie defenders in his wake on his way to the try line from 30 metres out.
Fergus Mulchrone and Ofisa Treviranus set the platform with robust carries, before Brendan McKibbin unleashed Hobbs-Awoyemi to the line. Bell added the extras to put his side 13-3 in front.
Not deterred by conceding the try, the Leeds-based club hit back with a period of sustained pressure to put Irish on the back foot, culminating in a Mike Mayhew try. A marauding run from the former Exile yielded the score. Ford was unable to convert from the touchline and Irish led 13-8.
Yorkshire had the momentum and on 26 minutes they edged ahead for the first time in the contest courtesy of winger Jonah Holmes. Pace and power with ball in hand, Holmes escaped the attention of Topsy Ojo on the near side to round off a swift backline move. Ford’s conversion gave Carnegie a slender 15-13 advantage.
Nick Kennedy’s men went close to regaining the lead just before the break when Alex Lewington raced 40 metres clear on the far side, only to lose the ball in the collision with the try line at his mercy.
The interval was a welcome reprieve for Irish, despite the margin only being two points as Kennedy regrouped his charges for the second period.
Irish came out for the second half with renewed vigour and looked to puncture holes in Carnegie’s rearguard from the restart. Spurning another chance in the shape of Ojo, who was bundled into touch in the corner, Irish’s pressure finally told on 56 minutes when Mulchrone crashed over. A mazy cross-field run from Lewington had Carnegie in disarray, and from the breakdown Mulchrone powered his way to the line. Bell’s conversion made it 20-18.
The Exiles’ dominance in the scrum led by double World Cup-winning All Black Ben Franks earned two penalties in quick succession which Bell duly obliged with to extend his side’s lead to 26-18.
Bell kicked a further penalty with the last kick of the game to give Irish an 11-point cushion going into the return leg at the Madejski Stadium.
YORKSHIRE: Elder, Holmes, Lucock, Casson (Green 78), Stegmann, Ford, Davies (Green 60)x, Beech (Boyce 55), M. Mayhew (Graham 75) Faletau (O’Donnell 19 (Beech 73)), Smith (Myerscough 53), West, Stedman (Beck 68), R. Mayhew, Burrows (c)
LONDON IRISH: Bell, Lewington, Tikoirotuma, Mulchrone, Ojo, Marshall, McKibbin (Steele 65), Hobbs-Awoyemi (Court 57), Paice (c) (Porecki 70), Franks, De Chaves, Sinclair (Robson 52), Coman, Cowan, Treviranus (Narraway 65)
Tries: M. Mayhew 17, Holmes 27
Cons: Ford 26
Pens: Ford 3 64
Tries: Hobbs-Awoyemi 14, Mulchrone 56
Cons: Bell 15 56
Pens: Bell 2 8 68 72 79
Referee: JP Doyle