The Stuff of Dreams
November 15 2019
In a rugby season there are moments that, in hindsight, are pivotal and there are moments that feel the same in advance. Leicester Tigers' visit to the Madejski Stadium felt like one of these in London Irish's 2019 season.
The fact is: Tigers have been struggling to keep their mantle for several seasons. Last season was possibly their worst in the modern era with the East Midlanders finishing in 11th place in the Gallagher Permiership, avoiding the drop with some incredible performances at the business end of the season - especially from George Ford. With the fly-half having a well-earned post-RWC rest Tigers came to Reading having lost 2 of their 3 openers albeit that their one victory was the previous week against a high-flying Gloucester at Welford Road.
Irish were on a similar record. A season-opening win at Wasps followed by a destruction at-home by Sale Sharks and a narrow loss (that could so easily have been a draw or even a win) away at Saracens.
So it felt like a crunch moment for the season. Both teams' season-starts put them at the base of the table and this could easily be a relegation-decider. Irish needed to win as it was their home game but the previous home game had gone about as badly as it's possible to...
The teams took to the field on a bright autumnal day and, since it was Remembrance Sunday, joined an impeccably-observed minute silence before kicking-off. Exiles supporters held their breath to see which London Irish had come to play. Was it the barn-storming away team that had beaten Wasps and so nearly Saracens or would it be the mis-firing and difficult-to-watch team that had capitulated to the Sharks in the driving rain?
We didn't have to go blue as Irish were immediately unrecognisable from the previous home game with accurate passing and kicking, combined with some fearsome carrying from the big lads, giving the men-in-green a good start and pegging Tigers in their half for much of the opening play. Pressure was turned into points when Irish kicked early penalties to touch rather than taking the points. I'll be the first to admit I thought this was a mistake, you don't just roll the Tigers over, but I was soon proved wrong when a driving maul from the subsequent line-out (it may have been the second, I think the first resulted in another penalty) barrelled over the line to give re-signee Ollie Hoskins a try.
From the restart Irish were penalised and Tom Hardwick (son of Irish stalwart Rob) brought Leicester back to 5 - 3.
Irish continued the pressure, though, and scored a second try from Ben Loader, again proving me wrong. Ben took a ball in the centre at-pace and beat a lovely path through the middle of the Tigers defence with players outdside him, surely an off-load would get the goodies? Loader kept the ball and backed himself. "Greedy little...." I was thinking only to watch the deceptively slight winger show his strength and power over the line and a defender to dot-down. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it is true: I know nothing about this game. Myler found his mark and converted the try.
Again Tigers came-back, after a period of play when they had a little more of the posession than earlier another Irish infringment was kicked to the posts (See! Leicester know to take the points!) by Hardwick to keep the visitors in the game.
Towards the end of the half Stephen Myler chalked that back with a penalty of his own, but the drama was not over. From the restart Tigers were awarded another kickable penalty. There was 11 seconds left on the match clock and Tigers, forgetting that taking the points is key, decided to kick to the corner. I've watched this a lot - it's a bold call but Leicester will manage to secure the line-out and either drive-over ot get the ball to their backs for a try just before half-time. It's a power-play and when it come-off (as it invariably does for the stripey ones) it not only gets them back in the game but it reminds our lads that this is how this game goes...
Except it didn't. Tigers, running-to-script, scured the ball and drove for the line only to be held-up, driven back and, even more remarkably, turned-over. Irish, not happy with re-writing the text, wanted to tear it up and grind it into the turf! The ball was spun along the back-line (you know, the one camped on the goal line) and the makeshift Tigers defence was breached. The play passed the 22, the half-way and the other 22 before being stopped just short of goal. Recycling quickly the ball made it to the hands of Ruan Botha who crashed over for a fine score.
A further conversion made it 22 - 6 at half-time.
At the break the conversation around me was that Tigers would be absolutely firing when they came back out, that we'd need to weather the storm for at least 10 minutes before we could think about turning the brilliant first-half into a result. We were, to an extent, right. Leicester were a lot more composed in the second-half and had a great deal more posession but the "storm" was more of a brisk breeze.
After nearly half an hour of arm-wrestling with both defences holding-firm it was two Irish debutants combining for the next points. Nick Phipps was on at scrum-half and he gathered the ball about 15m into the Leicester half and spotted Waisake Naholo in-space. The Aussie deftly cross-field kicked to the Kiwi leaving the winger to beat the Tigers wing. The kick was class, the run was class the try was a thing of beauty and brought-up the bonus point. Welcome indeed, gentlemen, keep it going! The conversion left us 23 points clear with less-than 15 minutes to play, could we start to believe?
Leicester continued to attempt to grind their way into the game but now they were forcing things to get some of the defecit back. A concerted attack saw the visitors held mid-way into the Irish 22 and they attempted to spin the ball wide to breach the Exiles. A massive hit from Ben Loader caused the ball to spill from a half-pass and Tom Parton, on at full-back, gratefully snaffled the egg and sprinted almost full length of the pitch to score a fifth home try and secure the win with Phipps taking the conversion.
A late consolation came for Tigers in the form of a well-worked Jonah Holmes try when Irish defensive-intensity dropped with the result assured. It felt like a pity, and I'm sure it will have irked the boys but it really didn't take the shine off a very complete performance.
The win leaves Irish in 7th and Leicester propping-up the table, it was a big, big deal. We're by no means safe but, if we can take-on big moments like this in the rest of the season, who knows? I've only seen one other game against Tigers that was so pleasing: when we beat them at Welford Road at the end of one of our relegation-avoiding seasons. This was a much better performance than that one, although not as emotional. Let's hope it brings us a similar outcome.pqs: qs:
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