London Irish secured their fifth win in six league matches in the Gallagher Premiership with a 36-18 win over Sale Sharks, their first over Sharks in almost 8 years.
The Exiles ended a previous 11-game winless run against Mancunian opposition with a fine display of trademark attacking rugby, starting off with a Hugh O’Sullivan try.
Agustín Creevy and Lucio Cinti dotted down for the second and third scores of Irish’s afternoon before the break, but Jean-Luc du Preez and Sam Dugdale would bookend the half-time break with five-pointers of their own.
Clutch defensive contributions from Rory Jennings and Josh Caulfield preceded Irish turning on the style with Academy prospect Tarek Haffar and replacement James Stokes both scoring in the game’s final 10 minutes.
The win gained five vital points in Round 20 of the Gallagher Premiership at the Gtech Community Stadium, with Irish occupying fifth in the league rungs at present.
Irish had an early shot at the goal after working through the phases, Sale pinged for not rolling away to afford Paddy Jackson an early penalty attempt, which the Irishman slotted.
Ben Loader looked assured from the outset; with a fantastic clearance off the left peg, collecting well under the high ball and making inroads down the left edge before being brought down.
Fellow back Benhard Janse van Rensburg pilfered back the ball at the breakdown, but Sharks did well to sustain Irish attacking possession with strong line speed that forced a handling error on the hosts.
Centre partnership Janse van Rensburg and Rory Jennings came into their own defensively, the South African putting in a massive shot on opposite number and compatriot Rob du Preez before Jennings charged down Tom Roebuck’s clearance.
Hugh O’Sullivan’s collection of a high ball despite a good contest from Tom O’Flaherty retained possession for Irish, and the scrum-half would be instrumental in his side’s first score moments later.
O’Sullivan sent a massive mispass to Janse van Rensburg before the midfielder drew in two Sale players to offload to partner Jennings, who escaped down the left win to then feed try-scorer O’Sullivan – a beautiful exhibition of rugby.
Alex Sanderson’s side would cut the deficit to five with Irish not releasing at the breakdown, Rob du Preez steeping up and converting the three points from the 22-metre line.
Brilliant industry on behalf of Tom Pearson saw him jackal the ball back when Sale came closest to the whitewash at that point of the encounter, Irish coming out on top after an O’Flaherty spill moments later.
A botched clearance from the Sale wing and subsequent breakdown infringement gave Jackson another shot at goal, this time just inside the opposing half, but the kick would drift left of the uprights.
The “most unsuspecting purveyor of a 50:22 kick of the season” will likely be awarded to Agustín Creevy, the hooker booting forward a loose lineout ball and into touch – and it would be the Argentine veteran who would extend Irish’s advantage.
With a catch-and-drive sequence, the Exiles stormed towards the goal area and benefitted from a penalty awarded by referee Matthew Carley, Creevy dotting down with Jackson converting.
Everything was coming at Irish, Jackson stealing a loose ball to then send an excellent nudge for another 50:22 kick, Irish simply making the Sale 22 their own at the time with another successful lineout take.
After several recycled balls, the ball was again in Jackson’s hands where he decided to go cross field to assist another Puma international, Lucio Cinti, for a try as the winger finished in contact.
It wasn’t all plain sailing for Irish, prop Facundo Gigena was sent to the bin for leading with his shoulder, Sale kicking to the corner and going over through Jean-Luc du Preez peeling off the maul to dot down for a well converted effort.
Declan Kidney’s men would see out the half after their opponents went straight off their feet at the ruck, yet instead of ending the half, the west Londoners would elect to play but with no additions to the scoreboard, Irish still led by 12 at the interval.
Sale came out with intent, but great defensive effort from Cinti and Janse van Rensburg to chase back and redeem a charge down kick demonstrated Irish’s grit on the afternoon.
The home outfit showed their conviction without the ball further with a sack of a threatening Sharks rolling maul, assisted by O’Sullivan, which was then quickly followed by a Rob Simmons lineout steal.
The Mancunians would however force a scrum penalty, and after the Boys in Green were marched back for backchat, an accurate George Ford touch finder laid the platform for a rolling maul score for the visitors.
With Irish just seven points ahead now, Sale saw much of the ball but Cinti’s defensive effort came in use again with a steal of possession in contact, Sharks then penalised for not rolling away and Irish looked for a rare second half red zone entry.
After working from right to left and back again, Irish couldn’t make any dents in the rearguard and Sale came again, Jennings bravely putting his body on the line to put an onrushing Cobus Wiese into touch.
Having worked with the advantage, play was brought back and after initially choosing a scrum, Sale had to forfeit their choice after Wiese couldn’t return and Ford added his first three of the game instead.
Sale used all their replacements by this stage and had to continue with 14 men, but a jackal turnover from Jean-Luc du Preez gave Sale another chance at a touch finder – replacement Josh Caulfield said no though, making a turnover of his own!
Irish went on secure the result through a breakaway try off the set-piece, a gallivanting Tom Pearson setting the tone before offloading to Caulfield, then passing to Tarek Haffar for the Senior Academy player to score!
Things only got better for the home outfit; deciding to live up to the free-flowing rugby tag with a nonchalant ball out the back from Pearson to Jackson, kicking from hand to Cinti to cut inside for James Stokes to conclude an day that will live long in the memory.
Score sequence (London Irish first): 3-0, 8-0, 8-3, 13-3, 15-3, 20-3, 22-3, 22-8, 22-10, 22-15, 22-18, 27-18, 29-18, 34-18, 36-18.
London Irish: Tries: O’Sullivan (15), Creevy (31), Cinti (34), Haffar (75), Stokes (79); Conversions: Jackson (32) (35) (75) (78); Penalties: Jackson (2); Yellow Cards: Gigena (36).
Sale Sharks: Tries: JL du Preez (37) Dugdale (55); Conversions: R du Preez (38); Penalties: R du Preez (20), Ford (67).
15 Ben Loader, 14 Lucio Cinti, 13 Benhard Janse van Rensburg, 12 Rory Jennings (Stokes 73), 11 Ollie Hassell-Collins, 10 Paddy Jackson, 9 Hugh O’Sullivan (Powell 53); 1 Facundo Gigena (Haffar 56), 2 Agustín Creevy (Willemse 53), 3 Oliver Hoskins (Chawatama 62), 4 Api Ratuniyarawa (Caulfield 62), 5 Rob Simmons, 6 Matt Rogerson (c) (Basham 63), 7 Tom Pearson, 8 So’otala Fa’aso’o (Haffar 43, Fa’aso’o 47, Cunningham-South 50).
16 Mike Willemse, 17 Tarek Haffar, 18 Lovejoy Chawatama, 19 Josh Caulfield, 20 Josh Basham, 21 Chandler Cunningham-South, 22 Joe Powell, 23 James Stokes.
15 Joe Carpenter, 14 Tom Roebuck, 13 Rob du Preez (James 64), 12 Ryan Mills, 11 Tom O'Flaherty (Reed 51), 10 George Ford, 9 Raffi Quirke (Warr 53); 1 Bevan Rodd (McIntyre 50), 2 Ewan Ashman (Taylor 50), 3 Coenie Oosthuizen (Schonert 50), 4 Cobus Wiese, 5 Jonny Hill, 6 Jono Ross (c) (D du Preez 52), 7 Sam Dugdale (Beaumont 64), 8 Jean-Luc du Preez (Ross 63 HIA).
16 Tommy Taylor, 17 Simon McIntyre, 18 Nick Schonert, 19 Josh Beaumont, 20 Dan du Preez, 21 Gus Warr, 22 Luke James, 23 Arron Reed.
Referee: Mr Matthew Carley