London Irish secured their spot in the EPCR Challenge Cup Round of 16 despite a 45-24 defeat to Saracens at the StoneX Stadium.
Irish opened the game with tries from James Stokes and Cillian Redmond, against the running of play, which kept them in the contest after strong first half performance from the hosts.
Saracens secured their try-bonus point in the first-half thanks to tries from back three Elliott Daly, Sean Maitland, and an Alex Lewington double.
Vincent Koch continued his side’s momentum into the second half, with Will Beaton and Eroni Mawi adding to the scoreboard with less than ten minutes to go.
Henry Arundell ensured the Exiles didn’t leave empty handed by jinking and jiving his way over for Irish’s fourth when little looked on for the youngster. That point registered the Exiles’ own try-bonus that puts them out of the reach of CA Brive and Section Paloise in Pool C.
Sustained early pressure from the Men in Black gave them two opportunities at a rolling maul as the Exiles were twice penalised for being offside, but twice Irish matched Saracens’ intent with solid defence.
James Stokes was on hand to break Sarries’ monopoly on possession and intercept Dom Morris’ attempted offload, running the length of the StoneX Stadium pitch to cross over unopposed under the posts.
Former Exile Sean Maitland retorted minutes later by finishing well in the corner off a first phase play from a Saracens lineout; but Manu Vunipola was unable to convert the extras, meaning Irish held onto their lead.
Declan Kidney’s men did not lie down nonetheless, following their hosts’ reply, as Ollie Hassell-Collins offloaded to fellow winger Cillian Redmond to dot down for Irish’s second. Early replacement Benhard Janse van Rensburg followed up by nudging over the touchline conversion.
Alex Lewington’s converted effort thren brought his side back to within two points following some notable footwork from Maro Itoje to breach into the Irish ‘22.
Andy Christie then made a break thorough the Exiles’ backline to set in motion a sequence heading towards the whitewash, but it was the same result as Alex Lewington scored his second of the day.
Some combined magic from Elliott Daly and Sean Maitland saw the North London outfit clinch their try bonus point, the former gaining valuable territory from his own half to then find his winger, Maitland returning the compliment with a grubber kick that fell to Daly to touch down.
Ben White’s efforts of a charge down were enough to prevent Vunipola adding his third conversion.
Irish agonisingly had a chance go begging on the cusp of half-time as uncharacteristic loose hands from van Rensburg, with the try line in touching distance, failed the stand-in out-half to leave Irish trailing by ten at the break.
The opening of the second period saw the visitors demonstrate some running game of their own from their loose forwards, with new acquisition Juan Martin Gonzalez charging through multiple opposing bodies and scoring his first five points in the London Irish jersey.
A second 50:22 kick of the match for Elliott Daly looked to threaten Irish once more but fantastic work at the breakdown and the consequential scrum mitigated the hosts’ momentum for the time being.
But it wasn’t long before Mark McCall’s men tasted their fifth of the afternoon through prop Vincent Koch, hulking his way over with Vunipola’s conversion increasing Irish’s deficit to 12.
Aggressiveness at the breakdown and set piece saw Saracens earn consecutive penalties, with Daly’s kick to the corner enabling a menacing rolling maul committed by many of the opposing sides’ men- but Irish came out best on this occasion.
Koch’s replacement Will Beaton replicated the South African’s try-scoring exploits with less than five minutes on the clock, smartly spotting a gap from the ruck and sniping over.
What Irish needed, nonetheless, was a crucial try to ensure their knockout-phase fate and promising young outside back Henry Arundell provided with silky manoeuvres with ball in hand to escape down the left outside channel and cross the whitewash.
Saracens had the final say on home turf in their mutual pursuit of qualification, winning a penalty one metre from the try line before replacement Eroni Mawi concluded the game with a score of his own.
Score sequence (London Irish second): 0-5, 0-7, 5-7, 5-12, 5-14, 1-14, 12-14, 17-14, 19-14, 24-14, 24-19, 29-19, 31-19, 36-19, 38-19, 38-24, 43-24, 45-24.
Saracens: Tries: Maitland (13), Lewington (26) (31), Daly (34), Koch (53), Beaton (76), Mawi (80); Conversions: Vunipola (26) (32) (53) (76) (80),
London Irish: Tries: Stokes (9), Redmond (20), Gonzalez (45), Arundell (77); Conversions: Jennings (10), van Rensburg (21)
15 Elliot Daly, 14 Sean Maitland (Harris 55), 13 Nick Tompkins, 12 Dom Morris (Lozowski 46), 11 Alex Lewington, 10 Manu Vunipola, 9 Ivan van Zyl (de Haas 59); 1 Mako Vunipola (c) (Mawi 50), 2 Tom Woolstencroft (George 50), 3 Vincent Koch (Beaton 59), 4 Maro Itoje, 5 Callum Hunter-Hill (Reffell 55), 6 Theo McFarland, 7 Andy Christie (Venter 61), 8 Billy Vunipola.
16 Jamie George, 17 Eroni Mawi, 18 Harvey Beaton, 19 Janco Venter, 20 Sean Reffell, 21 Ruben de Haas, 22 Alex Lozowski, 23 Ben Harris.
15 James Stokes, 14 Cillian Redmond, 13 Lucio Cinti, 12 Matt Williams (Arundell 21), 11 Ollie Hassell-Collins, 10 Rory Jennings (van Rensburg 18), 9 Ben White (O’Sullivan 74); 1 Facundo Gigena (Dell 52), 2 Matt Cornish (McElroy 70), 3 Marcel van der Merwe (Chawatama 41), 4 George Nott (Munga 41), 5 Adam Coleman (c) (Cooke, 78), 6 Matt Rogerson, 7 Juan Martin Gonzalez, 8 Olly Cracknell.
16 Tadgh McElroy, 17 Allan Dell, 18 Lovejoy Chawatama, 19 Chunya Munga, 20 Jack Cooke, 21 Hugh O’Sullivan, 22 Benhard van Rensburg, 23 Henry Arundell.
Referee: Mr Adam Jones
(Report compiled by Ryan Fitzgerald-Nolan)