Leinster Rugby 9-12 London Irish – 9th October 2009 – Heineken Cup Pool 6 Round 1
Penalties: Jonathan Sexton (3)
Penalties: Peter Hewat (2), Ryan Lamb (2)
The dulcet tones of Dublin’s most famous chorus, Molly Malone, echoed around the Royal Dublin Society Arena when Leinster Rugby opened up their arms to cousins London Irish for the second time in as many months.
Michael Cheika’s side, fresh from their first Heineken Cup trophy win, had played the Exiles in the city’s southside at the Donnybrook Stadium to round off their pre-season, a week after a convincing 38-10 win over Nice.
Despite Isa Nacewa’s unconverted opener in the pre-season game, Ryan Lamb’s three penalties opened the floodgates for Irish to do the damage in the first half through a Steffon Armitage score and penalty try, with each Club only amassed another penalty each in the following 40.
An impressive feat for the Exiles, given the Australian had led them to their second Magners League title the preceding season and a much-needed rest from lifting silverware was in check- nevertheless, Leinster look anything but complacent in their opening domestic games.
A narrow 18-16 opening day loss at Parc y Scarlets was the only mar against the blues’ record in the opening five matches, the aftermost of which was a 30-0 thumping over fellow province, Munster.
Losses of Felipe Contepomi and Rocky Elsom in the transfer window were counteracted by incomings of Nathan Hines from Union Sportive des Arlequins Perpignanais and former Bath five-eighth Shaun Berne.
Irish themselves were not too far removed from momentous campaigns; reeling from heartbreak at HQ against Leicester Tigers in the Club’s first ever league final the season prior, reaching the Heineken Cup knockout stages for the first time in 2008 and reaching a first European final in 2006.
Club stalwart and lineout virtuoso Nick Kennedy reminisces on the Exiles squad at the time.
“I remember going to Dublin really excited, the team were going well and were in good spirits.
“In the decade previous to that, it could have been a game we might lost because of how loaded their team was with the likes of D’Arcy, O’Driscoll and were flooded with internationals.
“In comparisons, we were a team of up-and-comers, with guys from here, there and everywhere but we had an excellent team spirit.
“We loved spending time together.”
This time around, the prestigious Clubs met with much more to play for in the curtain-raiser to the 2009/10 Heineken Cup campaign, a brisk night when seasonal change was in the air in more ways than one.
“I remember doing weights in the hotel, and Alan Ryan our Strength and Conditioning coach at the time brought them in to this really nice hotel for us to use, a different way of warming up and prepping us I suppose!
“We were lifting weights in the hotel pre-game to get us pumped, which was relatively unique!”
The idiosyncratic preparation as described by Nick Kennedy will have boosted fitness and motivation ahead of the tie, but Irish new they were in for a game from the off.
It took only then 24-year-old Jonathan Sexton three minutes to end the premature deadlock from the tee, capping off a solid start for his side where Brian O’Driscoll’s industry instituted the former’s kicking faculty.
O’Driscoll’s decision to take the ball further infield instead of out wide allowed the recovering full-back Peter Hewat and Chris Hala’ufia to recoup but a penalty conceded for hands in the ruck shortly after gave Sexton his chance at the opening points.
The province was quick with ball in hand and was brazen in their attacking play, Sexton lining up and subsequently missing a drop goal attempt from just inside his own half.
A combination of Sexton’s kicking and Nacewa’s collections through high kicks continued Leinster’s audacious game plan but Irish were up to the task without ball in hand.
Following the pinning back of the Leinster rearguard and Cian Healy holding on at the breakdown, Peter Hewat brought Irish back into the tie with a lengthy attempt at goal as the game reached 10 minutes old.
Fellow kicking compatriot Chris Malone showcased his defensive aptitude in Irish’s moment of need when preventing Luke Fitzgerald from crossing over for a first try of the game after neat interplay with fellow outside back Nacewa.
Nevertheless, the ever-reliable Sexton was on hand to reintroduce Leinster to the lead after a Chris Hala’ufia high tackle on Healy as Sexton’s smart footwork in midfield allowed for Leinster to go forth.
The Dublin-based side looked assured in their play, midfield maestro O’Driscoll the focal point of attack with a solid forward grouping edging Leinster through the Irish defence.
As much as the craic was flowing in the stands, tempers did indeed fray on the RDS park early on in the second quarter when following a set-piece move with London Irish attacking in the corner.
Jamie Heaslip and David Paice were booked by referee Romain Poite in amongst the fray whilst Kennedy professed that Leinster openside flanker Shane Jennings had gouged his eye, but there was no comeuppance for the latter action.
Steffon Armitage was withdrawn temporarily in order to oblige in Paice’s dismissal and Danie Coetzee was on, with the engine room of the pack in Bob Casey and Kennedy stirred and covering themselves in glory at subsequent lineouts.
A six-point swing approaching half time had Malone miss a drop goal and Sexton presented another penalty attempt, but the effort was similarly shifted wide in the wake of the Irishman taking a heavy blow whilst defending an Exiles attack.
Irish’s Australian kicker Hewat justified Irish’s emerging play by splitting the uprights on the cusp of half time from an impressive 45 metres out, punishing Shane Horgan for not releasing with the Clubs went into the break with nothing to separate them on the scoreboard.
Nick Kennedy recollects the cast that the Exiles employed on the day and the vast effect they had across the field each week.
“The game became a really tense affair, Ryan Lamb was so calm under pressure, just brilliant, and Chris Hala’ufia had a massive effect on the game.
“He was smashing people and making great tackles, carrying the ball brilliantly as he had done all season for us.
“We were a team that just gelled, in the centres Mapasua was on fire for London Irish in general.”
Toby Booth’s traveling party wasted no time in the second half and their full back Hewat was the orchestrator in kicking from hand, advancing his side in a kick chase that resulted in winning a penalty after Sexton couldn’t release under Sailosi Tagicakibau pressure.
Hewat had a wayward attempt at goal as a result but Irish’s lineout specialists, Casey and Kennedy, were dominant in the air and on the ground with the captain Casey facing off against the corresponding skipper Leo Cullen.
“The set-piece went well that day, and another memory is how well Bob Casey led us,” Kennedy retains.
“He was back to his old team and in his home town and was extremely motivated, taking us to his level.”
Samoan three quarter backs Elvis Seveali'I and Tagicakibau offered an avenue into Leinster territory with a linebreak from the centre but were ultimately undone by the thin blue line.
The influential Malone’s replacement Ryan Lamb too made an impact off the bench and then from the boot to give Irish their first lead of the affair, veering his side on course and into the ascendency from range.
Leinster were on the offensive once more from an improbable source with a botched clearance from Fitzgerald finding a suitor in O’Driscoll, fetching the ball out of the sky to lead the ultimately unsuccessful charge.
It was Fitzgerald again tasked with bringing the blues into the lead, but a combination of Hewat and Steffon Armitage ushered the winger away from the whitewash.
A scrum infringement from Chris Hala’ufia allowed Leinster’s soon-to-be international 10 come in with a clutch penalty kick, with scores tied and Leinster tails up.
It was in the final five minutes of the tense opening match with the blues coming within a grasp of a result against the west Londoners.
But Leinster’s defence were first to blink in the remainder of the matchup- Hala’ufia charging through after a lineout and Mike Ross, signed from Irish’s west London rivals Harlequins just weeks before, was deemed to infringe by kicking the ball from an offside position.
Only experiencing less than twenty minutes of the encounter to this point, the man who played a part in Irish torment as a Gloucester player in the 2006 Challenge Cup final had now readjusted Toby Booth’s side into the groove and was elected to potentially take the Exiles into the promised land.
With less than a minute remaining and rom 50 metres, Ryan Lamb “stepped up to the moment,” in the words of Head Coach Toby Booth.
The substitute fly-half, with sanguine conviction, connected with the Adidas ball and sent it through the posts and into the South Stand.
The game was not done, however, and it didn’t stray far from controversy as Leinster retook possession from the kick-off.
Kennedy explains: “It was a game Leinster were expected to win and it just got more tense.
“After Ryan scored the kick, there was still about a minute left and they had the ball in our 22 with the clock in the red.
“I was just praying “Please nobody give away a penalty, please don’t give away another penalty!” and Chris [Hala’ufia] tackled someone and it could have been high.”
The RDS crowd audibly maintained that the Tongan back-rower cleared the midfielder with a high tackle- but there was nothing doing for Poite with Eoin Reddan under the impression his side had the advantage yet the game was over with the final whistle.
“My heart was in my mouth, and I was just praying that the ref wasn’t going to pull him up on it and he didn’t!”
Formidable leader and man of the match on the day, Kildare native Bob Casey enjoyed many happy returns upon his visit back to his vernacular province, a venue where only Bath had success in the four years previous to the game.
Casey and co. set up a home away from home in a defensive effort far from the typical running rugby of yesteryear- and the visiting Exile Nation revelled in the golden glory.
Kennedy recalls the rewarding night out after, with some comical results.
“We won the game and was one of the best nights out we had as a squad in that four, five year period, out in Dublin.
“It went on very late and we were looking for some of the boys to then get back on the bus the next morning!
“Whilst it was not as big as other games like Perpignan a few years previous, it is still up there with some of our best wins when you look at their squad against ours.
“We deserved it though, and it was great memories made that I still feel proud of and treasure.”
The victory was hailed as a ‘shake-up to the order of Europe’ in some quarters of the press in front of a packed Dublin crowd of both team persuasions- perhaps not a changing of the guard, but a refreshing take on the opening night of Europe’s premier club competition.
A strong defensive display and accurate kicking saw the visitors through, despite the pre-match hype around attacking styles it was tactical grit that took Irish to glory on the descendant homeland.
Toby Booth acknowledged the momentous feat and outlined the jubilation in his team come the final whistle.
"We won a game in the backyard of a very difficult place to come against the defending champions in good form,” Booth stated.
"We've snuck it at the end and I think the enthusiasm with which the boys celebrated is purely out of respect for Leinster because they know how hard it is to come here and get anything."
Whilst opposite number in the dugout Michael Cheika rued the mistakes of his side, he was congratulatory to the Exiles and their performance.
"At the end of the day though we have to take responsibility for our own performance, we’ve been here before after losing at home to Bath in the first round, and we came back.
"London Irish are a good team, I think that tonight’s result was a combination of them being good and us being poor- sometimes the game goes like that.”
Leinster indeed did come back from the performance to top Pool 6, winning all games expect one- where Irish were dealt a dose of their own medicine at Twickenham Stadium as a late Jonathan Sexton goal stole a 11-all draw.
The blues progressed to the semi-finals after edging Clermont Auvergne 29-28 in the first round of the knockout stages, but were outdone by Stade Toulousain in the Stade Municipal.
Comparatively, Irish’s remainder of the campaign before the draw saw them do the double over CA Brive but lose twice to Llanelli Scarlets- close to making it two quarter-finals in three years as they matched Scarlets’ points haul in third but neither team would progress as one of the two best seeded second place teams.
After a first trip to a final since 2002 the previous season, the Exiles went out to prove that their title-pushing form was no rare fluke in the first round and could test the best of the rest on the continent- and successfully so.
Score sequence (London Irish second): 3-0, 3-3, 6-3, 6-6, 6-9, 9-9, 9-12.
Leinster Rugby: Penalties: Jonathan Sexton (3) (12) (75).
London Irish: Penalties: Peter Hewat (10) (40), Ryan Lamb (66) (79).
15 Isa Nacewa, 14 Shane Horgan, 13 Brian O'Driscoll, 12 Gordon D'Arcy, 11 Luke Fitzgerald, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Eoin Reddan; 1 Cian Healy, 2 John Fogarty, 3 Mike Ross, 4 Leo Cullen (c), 5 Nathan Hines, 6 Kevin McLaughlin, 7 Shane Jennings, 8 Jamie Heaslip.
16 Bernard Jackman, 17 Ronan McCormack, 18 CJ van der Linde, 19 Malcolm O'Kelly, 20 Seán O'Brien, 21 Stephen Keough, 22 Shaun Berne, 23 Rob Kearney.
15 Peter Hewat, 14 Tom Homer, 13 Elvis Seveali'i, 12 Seilala Mapusua, 11 Sailosi Tagicakibau, 10 Chris Malone, 9 Paul Hodgson; 1 Clarke Dermody, 2 David Paice, 3 Faan Rautenbach, 4 Nick Kennedy, 5 Bob Casey (c), 6 Declan Danaher, 7 Steffon Armitage, 8 Chris Hala'ufia.
16 Danie Coetzee, 17 Dan Murphy, 18 Paulicā Ion, 19 Andy Perry, 20 Richard Thorpe, 21 Jamie Lennard, 22 Ryan Lamb, 23 Alfredo Lalanne.
Referee: Mr Romain Poite (France).