May 25 2017
The pinnacle, focus and point of the season came to Madejski Stadium on Wednesday night. Having dropped from rugby's top-flight for the first time Irish built their season around 4 games. The Semi-finals home and away followed by the pair of finals.
Step one was to make sure Irish were in the top four of the Championship by the end of the regulare season. This seemed relatively easy that spot was secured by February with 6 of the 20 fixtures left to play.
Step two was to get past Doncaster in the semis and, thanks to a fabulous away performance (followed by a so-so home one), that was also done.
Step three - Yorkshire Carnegie - were a proper challenge, though. Formerly Leeds Tykes, Yorkshire are a genuine Premiership-experienced side and, coached by Brian Redpath, they have all the credentials for a return to the top-flight. Irish could be confident based on previous meeting this year - the three meetings had all been won by Irish, both the home ones comfortably but a bit of a squeaker at Headingley.
The main worry for the Exiles was very much the pressure. The drop from the Aviva Premiership was in part down to Irish falling when it came to the crunch and with all the build-up focusing on the final would the men-in-green crumble at the last hurdle.
An 11 point lead from the awy leg was a massive fillip and so it came to Wednesday Night Lights on a downright warm evening. Conditions were perfect, there was a huge crowd in (for Irish in the Championship) and the club had sprung for Irish flags on every seat - the atmosphere was immense.
Dream start for the Irish - their kick-off was dropped by Carnegie and from the resultant scrum Ciaran Hearn, a late replacement for naughty-step-resident Aseli Tikoratuma (suspended for a dangerous tackle in the away-leg) ran a superb line breaking (albeit half-hearted) tackles to give Irish an opening score, although Bell missed the extras.
Yorkshire were not up for one-way traffic, though, and quickly addressed their haphazard start. Winger Seb Stegmann responded with a try from an intercept and the conversion gave Carnegie a lead - eating into the 11 point Irish safety buffer. A penalty stretched the lead soon after.
It was playing-out much like the away leg, initial Irish points pegged-back and overcome by a canny Yorkshire side. Irish changed the pattern though by scoring a second try through a fine line run by Brendan McKibbin. Bell's conversion put the hosts in-front but the visitors were not to let that lie with ex-Irishman Mike Mayhew picking up from a ruck to score. It was one of those "is that legal?" moments since Mayhew was very much part of the ruck but referee Matt Carley allowed it and the conversion restored Carnegie's on-the-night lead 12 -17.
Irish had gone in at half time at Headingley behind the Yorkshire side but a further penalty and a converted try via the TMO for Fergus Mulchrone gave the Exiles the lead. The TMO was called since during the move David Paice was in-front of play and could have been adjudged off-side or obstructing but he was well-away from actual play so the TMO allowed the score.
A further Joe Ford (having another excellent game) penalty kept Yorkshire in-sight but Irish went into half-time with a slender lead 22 - 20.
The second half was, well, mad. The opening 15 minutes gave Irish 3 converted tries. The choice was the first - Alex Lewington, jinking back-and-forth beat, well, everybody. He seemed to pass the entire Carnegie defence in his run from just inside his own half. Joe C may have got try of the season but I suspect it should go to this effort - for context as well as execution. A second from Brendan McKibbin and a second from Lewington finished the score-fest and, with all three converted by Bell, put Irish into clear water. 43 - 20 on the night and a whopping 34 points ahead on aggregate.
Now, a few times this season when Irish have been well ahead I've felt that Sir has taken it upon himself to even it up a bit. It is almost certainly my one green eye but that's how it felt and true-to-form Matt Carney seemed to want Yorkshire in the fight. First he yellow carded Mike Coman for having the temerity to be standing where a Carnegie player chose to land from collecting a high-ball. Wales play similar tactics - a player leaps into the air with seemingly no thought for where they'll land. Coman had his hands in the air to prove no foul-play but Mr Carley decided he needed a sit-down.
Yorkshire made the man extra count with a Ben West try having camped on the Irish goal-line for a good period (helped by Sir using any excuse to penalise the defence).
The half concluded with some very scrappy play. Irish with an almost certain win stopped defending in any meaningful sense. Yorkshire, desperate to do the impossible, fought like demons. Penalties ensued - Irish taking every opportunity to kick posts, Yorkshire taking them to the corner and managing to convert three tries. Carnegie's Lewis Boyce collected a yellow card for a punch and later there was a massive punch up (getting the loudest support from the 7,830-strong crowd) which saw Ben Franks and Yorkshire's Charlie Beech getting red cards for punching.
The game was over, though. Eventually Sir agreed and Irish won the match 55 - 48 and the aggregate fixture 84 - 66. It was an odd end to what had been a highly entertaining game for 60 minutes.
It didn't dampen the party however. Players, academy lads, club staff and their families were clearly elated as they celebrated on the pitch. Mission accomplished - Irish return to the Avivia Premiership for the 2017/18 season.pqs: qs:
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I must confess to spending the last few mins 'watching the clock' after YC ran in their last try. Surely we couldn't be caught - could we..?
What a night - and so great to see all the joy at the presentation of the Trophy - considering it's only the 2nd ever 15-a side trophy that we've ever won, I sure wanted to eke out every minute of last night
Brilliant report Griff - how did you remember everything so clearly...?!
Well, firstly since I have a drum with me I have to drive... Plus there are a variety of match reports available online to prompt my memory