London Irish took their lead at the top of the Championship table into double figures – for 24 hours at least – with a maximum haul from Nottingham. But the team certainly did not have things all their own way against the hosts, who maintained their pace, intensity and intent throughout the 80 minutes.
The Exiles headed to Lady Bay seeking a fast start, not least because Nottingham had overcome Ealing Trailfinders in November on their home turf and were renowned for being a challenging opponent.
And this is exactly what they got, having all of the territory and the vast bulk of possession in the opening five minutes, working patiently to stretch Nottingham one way and then the other.
A penalty was sent to the corner, but while Nottingham forced a fumble in the air they were not able to clear their lines, and after the visiting pack was held up by the uprights the ball was sent out to Terrence Hepetama, who went over for the score. Stephen Myler added the conversion, and London Irish were 7-0 to the good.
However Nottingham had barely touched the ball, and they showed how dangerous they could be in their first attack, prop Mike Daniels bursting through to score from long range to tie things up five minutes later.
Back came the Exiles into the home 22, Albert Tuisue one of several players to catch the eye with ball in hand. Centres Hepetema and Tom Stephenson also got over the gain line, and while Irish were keeping the ball alive superbly the home defence was up to the challenge, Topsy Ojo tackled into touch while stretching for the line.
Nottingham won their own throw and cleared beyond the 22, but the visiting pack took over, driving all the way to the whitewash for Dave Porecki to score. Myler shrugged off the pressure of the Nottingham runners to slot the conversion, but back again came hosts, who showed their own intent with a combination of straight running, offloading and wide passing.
But it was some nice vision from Shane O’Leary which unlocked the Irish rearguard, the fly half sending a pinpoint chip to the unmarked David Williams on the right touchline. The wing had been tackled well by Ben Loader a couple of phases previously, but Loader was powerless to stop his opposite number this time, and with O’Leary on target from in front of the uprights the score was tied once again.
The end-to-end trend continued immediately, Luke McLean’s scything run putting his team back onto the front foot, and soon Irish were back on Nottingham’s line. This time the hosts held firm, winning a penalty to clear their lines and then putting together a good lineout drive of their own, but when Darryl Veenendaal was penalised Myler sent a superb kick deep into home territory to set up a promising position.
A couple more penalties were forthcoming by the posts, and with more power coming on at scrum time the third try seemed inevitable, Matt Rogerson the beneficiary.
Nottingham came again, O’Leary getting a fortunate bounce off a charge-down before setting off on a run, but on this occasion time ran out and when the ball bounced off Tom Varndell into touch the half ended with Irish seven points up.
Five minutes after the restart Irish had both extended their lead and earned themselves a bonus point. Myler rounded things off, diving over in the corner off an Ojo pass, and the try rewarded strong running from both Rogerson and Stephenson in the build-up.
The touchline conversion also gave Irish a double-digit lead for the first time in the game, but any thoughts that Nottingham were going to go quietly into the night were soon dispelled when Luke Peters crashed over in the 52nd minute.
The hosts received further boosts when Irish dropped the ball over the line, before failing to retain possession at a breakdown and then losing a lineout, all before the hour.
There were no such errors in the 68th minute as the forwards set themselves into a strong maul to win a penalty, before driving Ollie Hoskins over from the next lineout. But again Nottingham were not to be taken lightly, and when Devante Onojaife went over for the hosts’ fourth score with seven minutes to play the match was put back into the balance.
But O’Leary missed the conversion, which kept Irish two scores in front, and when a superb Williams offload put Josh Poullet away down the right wing to put Nottingham into the position to win a penalty the hosts were faced with a choice of going for the posts or the corner to get within seven points.
O’Leary did the honours, and with time still on the clock Nottingham had one final chance to go end-to-end for the match-winning score. They made it up to halfway, but just as the momentum was starting to stretch the Irish the ball came out of the back of a ruck, Ben Meehan hacked it into touch and the Exiles had the win.
Tries Daniels (13), Williams (26), Peters (51), Onojaife (73)
Cons O’Leary (14), (28), (52)
Pens O’Leary (80)
Tries Hepetema (8), Porecki (20), Rogerson (37), Myler (46), Hoskins (68)
Cons Myler (9), (23), (38), (48), (70)
Nottingham Scanlon; Williams, Millett (Lyons, 68), Peters, Varndell; O’Leary, Veenendaal (capt); (McConnell, 50); Hills (Jack, 57), Brownlie (Farnworth, 52), Daniels (Walker, 31), Onojaife (Cox, 80), Lewis, Buckley, Owen (Poullet, 56), Coghlan
London Irish McLean; Ojo, Stephenson, Hepetema (Macken, 63), Loader; Myler, Meehan; Reid (Cilliers, 75), Porecki (Fainga’a, 58), Hoskins, van der Merwe (capt), Paulo, Tuisue (McNally, 58), Gilsenan (Schatz, 50), Rogerson
Replacements: Brand, Veitokani