London Irish booked their place in the Premiership Rugby Cup final for a second successive year with a 30-18 win over Northampton Saints at the Gtech Community Stadium.
Saints opened their account through Ollie Sleightholme in what was a back-and-forth opening period, Lucio Cinti dotting down before Tom Litchfield’s score as Rory Jennings’ kicking played a prominent role.
Irish would bag their second five pointer through Josh Basham to begin the second 40 minutes, James Grayson playing his part from the tee and keeping the visitors in touch, two points away at one stage.
With a nip-and-tuck evening of knockout rugby, Rory Jennings kept a cool approach with another penalty and conversion to the pivotal Eddie Poolman score.
Saints made a strong impression in the opening exchanges in the capital, Irish then pinged for not rolling away before the visitors worked through strong phase play.
They soon took the lead through Ollie Sleightholme, who collected a contested cross-field kick sent from James Grayson to dot down, the latter being unable to convert.
Irish showed signs of promise for the first time, putting pressure on the visitors from the restart and forcing a satisfactory exit, but the Exiles were then penalised for going off their feet at the ruck.
A neat grubber through from Saints and hasty clearance from the home side saw Irish under the cosh again, but they sacked the resulting rolling maul in a strong display of off the ball determination.
Great defence from Irish continued, firstly from a Michael Dykes dominant tackle and then a lineout steal from Jack Cooke, setting the tone for an opening score.
A charge down from Lucio Cinti on Tom Litchfield in the back field was key, Matt Williams and Cooke collaborating well to ensure Cinti received the ball again to dive over – Rory Jennings adding the extras to take his side into the lead for the first time.
Irish was utilising the edges of the Gtech pitch for the first time in the encounter, making hay through strong phase play of their own but coming in from the side halted their procession to the line just five metres out.
So’otala Fa’aso’o was to make successive jackal turnovers, initially on Irish’s own whitewash and again in midfield, to prove a real nuisance at the breakdown for the Midlanders.
The home outfit were in full flow, executing a switch in direction of play out of the ruck to deceive the opponents, using great hands to find space on the wing but a Ben Loader grubber couldn’t be collected by replacement James Stokes in the goal area.
Despite instances of loose handling, Irish still showed up at the set-piece with a colossal effort at the scrum, which gave an opportunity for Jennings to successfully bisect the posts.
Saints’ retort was swift, Litchfield touching down in the goal area after a pop pass from Grayson set the centre free to score, Grayson scoring the place kick this time.
A shove from Courtnall Skosan to nudge Caolan Englefield into an airborne Loader caused the full-back to be replaced by Eddie Poolman for a head assessment, Irish duly earning back possession with a significant effort at the put-in after.
Cinti thought he had a brace before the break as Irish worked brilliantly through the gain line, but play was called back after Irish encountered Sleightholme receiving treatment for a head injury.
An offside penalty was Saints’ previous undoing, and Jennings ensured Irish took the lead at the half from the tee.
Loader would pass his head injury assessment upon return from the sheds, and Irish wouldn’t have to wait for an extension on their lead at all.
The Franklin’s Gardens side not rolling away saw Irish find touch and elect for the corner, and with the pick and drive effort separating from any Saints challenge and Josh Basham scored, with a Jennings conversion to complement.
Saints would hit back with three more points from Grayson after Irish were pinged for not rolling away also, the Exiles still maintaining their hold in the scrum however with another set-piece penalty win.
A well-placed box kick from Northampton replacement Tom James put his men on the frontfoot, working back-to-back lineout moves but Irish’s endeavour at the maul saw a needed reversal of possession.
Lovejoy Chawatama’s last contribution was another scrum penalty win before being replaced by Ciaran Parker, but Northampton would reduce the deficit heading into the final quarter with a Grayson penalty.
Saints trailed by a mere two points at this stage, but the west Londoners would camp out in the opposing half with nice handling from Poolman, a searching box kick from Hugh O’Sullivan and a charge down from Matt Cornish to flex some replacement depth.
After a turnover penalty was won by Cinti, Jennings added three points to his tally as Irish stood with a five-point cushion.
In a nervy conclusion, Irish looked to seal the deal with excellent line breaks from Cinti and the returning Tarek Haffar, but the all-important moment came two minutes from time.
A brilliant mispass from Jennings found Matt Cornish, running away down the right edge like a winger, giving and going to find Eddie Poolman for his first Club try, sealing Irish’s place in consecutive Premiership Rugby Cup finals!
Score sequence (London Irish first): 0-5, 5-5, 7-5, 10-5, 10-10, 10-12, 13-12, 18-12, 20-12, 20-15, 20-18, 23-18, 28-18, 30-18.
London Irish: Tries: Cinti (13), Basham (45), Poolman (79); Conversions: Jennings (14) (47) (79); Penalties: Jennings (36) (40) (75).
Northampton Saints: Tries: Sleightholme (5), Litchfield (38); Conversions: Grayson (39); Penalties: Grayson (49) (62).
15 Ben Loader (Poolman 39 HIA), 14 Lucio Cinti, 13 Matt Williams (Poolman 61), 12 Rory Jennings, 11 Michael Dykes (Stokes 16 HIA), 10 Jacob Atkins, 9 Caolan Englefield (O’Sullivan 66); 1 Facundo Gigena (Haffar 72), 2 Ignacio Ruiz (Cornish 66), 3 Lovejoy Chawatama (Parker 61), 4 Josh Caulfield, 5 Chunya Munga, 6 Jack Cooke (c), 7 Josh Basham, 8 So’otala Fa’aso’o (Donnell 66).
16 Matt Cornish, 17 Tarek Haffar, 18 Ciaran Parker, 19 Ed Scragg, 20 Ben Donnell, 21 Hugh O’Sullivan, 22 Eddie Poolman, 23 James Stokes.
15 Tom Collins, 14 Ollie Sleightholme (Hendy 40), 13 Rory Hutchinson, 12 Tom Litchfield (Matavesi 66), 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 James Grayson, 9 Callum Braley (c) (James 53); 1 Ethan Waller (Hobbs-Awoyemi 53), 2 Tom Cruse (Burns 72, Cruse 74), 3 Alfie Petch (Painter 53), 4 Brandon Nansen (Lockett 69), 5 Alex Coles, 6 Karl Wilkins (Sylvester 72), 7 Aaron Hinkley, 8 Sam Graham.
16 Callum Burns, 17 Danny Hobbs-Awoyemi, 18 Ehren Painter, 19 Tom Lockett, 20 Kayde Sylvester, 21 Tom James, 22 Joel Matavesi, 23 George Hendy.
Referee: Ms Sara Cox