Did it matter? Yes!
OK, I promised I wouldn’t do a report, and indeed I took no notes, the process being beyond me for some reason. Anyway I wanted to watch! However, nobody put their hand up to take my place, and I simply cannot resist the opportunity to record our first home win for a while, and what must have been our best overall performance since we memorably put away Wasps last spring. It may not have been the highest quality of rugby any of us has ever seen, but it was most encouraging, and for me represents a corner turned in our season.
It’s not much of a knock-out
There were lashings of posts before the game about whether either club would put out an Academy team or a strong one, given the instant-knock-out-pool nature of this odd Anglo-Welsh competition. In the end, both clubs announced what everyone thought were pretty strong line-ups. It’s no use now suggesting that either was weak. Both press pundits and supporters agreed that both clubs were giving it a lash, possibly a one attempt wonder, but a lash nonetheless. The starting teams, for a change, were as announced during the week.
The crowd has been officially announced at 7,172, but faster brains than mine suggest that this figure must now include non-attending STHs as well as folk who braved the elements. Hell, I don’t know, but it looked like (another) lamentably small crowd to me. I don’t think it’s the current call to fund Mr Madejski’s retirement plan which is keeping people away. It’s the farcical design of the competition. It simply doesn’t grab you by the dangly bits, and offers too may attempts for the early losers to ‘skip’ later fixtures, thus possibly skewing the final outcome of the pool, by ‘robbing’ other winners up against less cynical opponents. An open, honest competition?
A corner turned?
London Irish scored five tries to two, and in the end we were the moral as well as the scoreboard victors. Ours were five good tries, just the medicine the doctor ordered at this stage in our season, and exactly NOT what poor old Sarries needed. On the other hand Sarries’ tries were not all clearcut examples of the art. They were certainly denied a try at the outset, and they earned a good breakaway score through Ratuvou in the 53rd minute. However, I’d prefer to gloss over the merits of their penalty try, for while there was certainly an offence, I could not see any reason for a seven pointer to be awarded. Oh for the benefits of a TV recording.
Neither side had previously shown anything like GP-winning form this season, and both were desperate to get a good performance and a good result under their belt. Nothing to do with progress in the cup. Everything to do with getting up a head of quality steam, so that we could return to the GP with a chance of advancing up the table, rather than a need to start winning from a standing start. More of this anon.
A glance at the Saracens’ starting line-up suggested that they’d give us trouble. And in the first 10 minutes particularly they did exactly that, although it must be said that we assisted them nobly in this period. The visiting front row of Ben Broster, Shane Byrne and Kevin Yates did not seem to offer much leeway to an Irish front five which has been firing fitfully at best in the tight. Our starting props may be improving with every game but going into this game they were still not demonstrably match-fit. Hugh Vyvyan and Ben Russell are always a handful. Armed with England’s over-hyped ‘saviour’ Andy Farrell at 6 and an on-form Glen Jackson at 10, and with the threats of Johnstone, Scarborough and Haughton at the back, our visitors did not seem to be exactly toothless. They also fielded LI-Old Boys Rodd Penney at 11 and Paul Gustard at 8. Ross Laidlaw is injured or maybe we’d have seen him on the Sarries bench?
On the other hand, the Exiles line-up also looked useful – on paper. A mobile second row to match Saracens in the loose, with a taller back row containing the pace of Leguizamon and Magne, backed by the increasingly impressive Rees at 9, the right/left boots of Everitt and Flutey in centrefield, the creativity of Flutey, and the bruising promise of Tiesi, surrounded by the speed of Armitage and Tagicakibau on the wings and the pace and experience of Horak at the back. For me it all depended upon how that front row got by, and especially how they lasted.
A poor start
But what would happen when they hit the park? We soon found out, as pass after pass was spilled in a sacrificial frenzy, with our defence flapped at passing Saracens, as they made huge inroads into our centrefield. In fact, play remained in our 22 for much of the opening period. Our worst fears seemed about to be fulfilled, although Bruce Robertson, the referee, seemed to be firmly on our side at this point, saving us from ourselves.
It rained hard in the first half and the new Desso pitch retains moisture like you would not believe, so it was never going to dry out appreciably. However, you’d have thought for a while as though each team had its own ball. Ours was made of slippery soap lathered in soft water. Theirs was a hard thing, built for catching, even at knee height.
Not having taken notes, my memories of the game are basically flashes of play retained, plus impressions gained.
In retrospect I put our early yips down to nerves as much as to anything else. The players seemed all too conscious that much was expected from them, and while they tried so hard, perhaps they tried too hard to force the play? One of my neighbours came up with the classic comment that perhaps we had too much ball in that first 10-15 minutes, so much in fact, that our error rate multiplied in exponential sympathy. He may well have been right.
What was noticeable was that as time and again we escaped from the threatened cricket score our confidence and performance started to blossom. Where I recall Leguizamon spending a lot of early time flat on his face with the ball spilling forwards from him along the deck, I also have later memories of him boring ahead, setting up phase after phase.
So… I shall expunge the dodgy earlier cameos from the mind and focus on what the team became, what they achieved as their quality of work improved.
The benefits of our early try by Rees (unconverted as Barry hit the right upright full-on) were largely eradicated by four penalties by Jackson until half an hour in, when we scored our second through a fantastic run by the Mike Horak of old (with an unused but full back-up cast of support runners.) Isn’t it funny how, blinded by the genius of youth, we forget exactly how quick and powerful a runner Mike is?
Once the score became 12-12, there was no doubt in our minds. Notwithstanding the constant threat when Sarries put the ball to their powerful running backs, the end result was no longer in doubt. We all believed we’d win, and so did our team.
How they fared
Our victory was founded in a a growing forward ascendancy. Our poor start seemed to be down to the lack of it. That is how important the final denouement was to us. The Sarries scrum was something to respect, but on the day, with a near spectating Farrell at 6 and Gussie out of position at No 8 they could not quite hold out throughout. Pressure? You bet. Their scrum creaked consistently, and we more than held our own.
In fact, our front row competed throughout. Hatley left the field after 20 minutes or so, replaced by Lea'aetoa, hitherto a terrifying photo opportunity but hardly the tiger in the tight that we had expected when his signature was announced. Today, Tonga proved to be a consistent handful at loose head. Maybe Toby Booth has been getting to him? Maybe he too wasn’t really fit before? Over on the other side the bowed back of Richard Skuse uncomplainingly went about his task of dominating the tight for the full 80 minutes. I cannot speak for the absent but always competitive Hats, but Skusey looks ready for the fray when the GP returns to our fixture list. He and Tonga may not be the fastest around, but today they scrummaged and lifted like good uns.
On the face of it, and assuming that Beefy isn't malingering in Matron's Monday queue, I'd say that we must now have every squad prop just about fit to take the park, bar Collins and Rautenbach. I almost despair of seeing either of them again. Perhaps, as we emerge from our darkest hour, the Club might issue a statement about their health prospects?
Oh and what about Paicey? Surely his thumb is better by now? Robbie Russell did ever so well up front in the first half, but I had the impression that Coetzee was trying too hard and too desperately to make an impression when he came on. He normally makes such a difference, but somehow his difference today seemed off from the norm.
Behind them Hudson and Kennedy played an altogether tighter game than we normally expect from our high mobility locks, but it was what was needed. Our line out was much improved, unrecognisable from the shambles of the Bristol game’s second half two weeks ago. Coetzee especially still missed our jumpers a couple of times, but we gave em hell on their throw!
Our back row came into the game gradually, in the sense of making a positive impact. Once they got stuck into their opponents, tying up possession instead of giving it away, we looked twice the side.
Behind them Rees must be making Dodge a bit nervous about getting his spot back automatically. He looked fast and sharp – and happy – and his passes out to Everitt were a joy. His run-down and touch-down of Jackson’s clearance after the second half kick-off was a master class in speed of reaction. Barry was on the end of a lot of space with the ball coming his way, but he mostly kept things simple, moving it down the line and repositioning for the next phase. Flutey, at 12 tackled well, ran well, passed well and line kicked like the donkey that must appear somewhere in his family history. I would have given MOTM to Tiesi, but I am not going to object to Brian’s judgement being better than mine on this one!
And this brings me neatly to our back four, where Tiesi did absolutely nothing wrong and everything right. Fast and incisive, today he demonstrated exactly how devastating a tackler he is, bravely scything down anything that moved. How on earth BS is going to be able to drop him to comply with Kolpak I don’t know. He looked out and out the best 13 we have fielded this year. Let’s hope that passport issues are quickly resolved. What happens when Mapusua starts to compete for a spot as well? I forecast something quite special if we can link these two.
Sailosi and Delon on the wings always looked fast and threatening, and Delon in particular set up Flutey’s try with a breathtaking run up his wing. Class all the way, although I must admit that I do not always like his positioning in defence. But that applies when he plays at 15 as well!
Behind them all, Mike Horak played with increasing aplomb, and our defence looked safe in his hands. He made some good runs upfield as well, very good ones. Methinks he’ll be hard to dislodge. Another selection headache for BS!
For a change all our substitutions worked out, and we cannot blame Sarries’ second half revival on the appearance of a new back row between the two Saracens tries. In fact they provided a balance which I thought was to our advantage. Oh and young Steffon Armitage managed to turn over Saracens ball with his first touch in our first team colours! He looks and behaves like a proper openside, despite reminding me of a football on matchsticks. He did little wrong and much that was right, and will doubtless feature again. McCullen slotted straight into the blindside berth where he reminded me of the Gussie of old. Murph was Murph at No 8, but towards his best, not his occasional Desperate Dan impersonation. A power display.
Bish came on at 15 towards the end, and did what Bishes do in defence. No problem about seeing him there again. Shane Geraghty replaced Everitt a moment or so later and looked comfortable at 12 without doing anything I can recall worth reporting.
Overall? We’ll need to cut out the silly mistakes of the first ten-twenty minutes, but that’ll come on a drier day, backed by the confidence of what was a good win against a Saracens team of fair quality.
London Irish: 15. M Horak (rep: J Bishop, 65), 14. S Tagicakibau, 13. G Tiesi, 12. R Flutey, 11. D Armitage, 10. B Everitt (rep: S Geraghty, 72), 9. R Rees, 1. N Hatley (captain)(rep: T Lea'aetoa, 22), 2. R Russell (rep: D Coetzee, 50), 3. R Skuse, 4. N Kennedy, 5. J Hudson (rep: A McCullen, 60), 6. K Roche, 7. O Magne (rep: S Armitage, 60), 8. J Leguizamon (rep: P Murphy, 60).
Saracens: 15. D Scarborough, 14. R Haughton, 13. K Ratovou, 12. B Johnston (rep: De Vedia, 54), 11. R Penney (rep: K Sorrell, 74), 10. G Jackson, 9. M Rauluni (rep: N De Kock, 66), 1. K Yates (captain), 2. S Byrne (rep: F Ongaro, 62), 3. B Broster (sin-bin: 64-74)(rep: T Mercey, 74), 4. H Vyvyan, 5. T Ryder, 6. A Farrell (rep: T Mercey, 65-74), 7. B Russell (rep: D Seymour, 62), 8. P Gustard.
Last edited by OxonRob
on Thu Oct 05, 2006 1:40 am, edited 6 times in total.