London Irish enjoy the Freedom of the Madejski
In the Quarter Final of the European Challenge Cup today, London Irish beat Bayonne by seven tries to one, and that ‘one’ was scored against the run of play and 14 men. In fact, the Exiles’ big men, Murphy and Casey, managed to score their tries while Irish were down to 13 men for the final six or seven minutes!
48-5 sounds like a hammering, and a hammering it was in the second half, when we managed to finish what we started. In the first half we didn’t, although on the run of play, and the breaks we made, we could and maybe should have had three tries instead of a paltry one by the time the oranges were served.
However, we had a cunning game plan which saw Brain beat Brawn convincingly. We were not going to let Bayonne’s vaunted big boys ‘bash us up’, so we moved the ball about smartly, made them run off their lunch, and somehow saw to it that scrums were kept to a minimum. They were well out of puff by the end.
A Pack to be proud of
As in all victories the foundations were laid by the pack. They scorned the reputation of their opponents, and it has to be said that our front row showed huge resolve in the tight, where they gave not an inch. Somehow they also found the energy to run back at their opponents all afternoon, all three of them making forceful runs over the gain line. Messrs Hatley (the ageless) Russell (the tireless) and Skuse (the implacable) all had big, big games.
Our back row ran their socks off all afternoon too, turning over ball, putting in some big hits and some good runs. Messrs Danaher, Dawson and Magne all earned their spurs and then some today. For me they were the foundation of our result. While on the subject of back rows, I thought that artificial aids were as illegal in rugby as they are in golf. So, if he does not have personal radar, how does cher Olivier manage always to be in the right place at the right time?
Casey and Roche (abetted by Magne) ran the lineout, put in some big tackles and charges and generally behaved like Martin Johnson crossed with Danny Grewcock in the days when he was mobile and bothered to play. Big Bob demonstrated the hand-off to particular effect.
The game in outline
Outside them, the backs attempted much and achieved little in the first half, and at half time some of us doubted that a 10 point lead would be sufficient. Surely Bayonne would come back at us in our traditionally dodgy third quarter and start to drill our upstart pack into the soggy ground, a la Sale a week earlier? Oh no they didn’t. Our game plan didn’t change, but our execution did. More of this anon.
Whereas in the first half play seldom if ever entered the hosts’ half of the field, in the second we did allow Bayonne a little more territory. Only a little, mark you, and mostly when they kicked off deep, following one of our six second half tries. Otherwise it was generally business as usual, in the French half.
There really wasn’t that much kicking from hand this afternoon, but what there was generally went our way. It was that kind of day. Whatever Bayonne tried, and they did try, simply didn’t work. Their knock-ons abounded, as did their passes into touch, and kicking out on the full from outside the 22. It was that kind of day for them too. It chillingly reminded me of London Irish last season.
The backs frolic like lambs in spring
That left the London Irish threes to boss the second half, and boss it they did, with an exhibition of angles and cutting lines to bring joy to any but the dead. Where they had seemed reluctant to go the whole hog and move beyond foreplay in the first forty, now they were throwing themselves into the hurly-burly of the chaise-longue with the abandon of a University first year throwing off the shackles of a convent upbringing.
Hodgson fed them, and off they went, looping around, coming up on the inside shoulder and just occasionally feeding it wide with a miss pass. Speed was ‘us’, although poor Armitage seemed a fraction off his normal pace, having taken a nasty bang to the hip early on. Brave lad, he had doubtless foreseen that we would need him, and he stayed on, when he might have come off. Tagicakibau and Tiesi were less fortunate, being forced from the park, the latter with what appeared to be a serious concussion.
Our treatment rooms must be overflowing, and one starts to wonder whether the rest of the season will prove to be a month too long for our playing resources.
A tiny crowd of 5,100 watched this celebration of all that is now good in London Irish rugby. Has the message not got through yet? Are we missing the marketing efforts of our late Commercial Director? This team is worth so much more than 5,100 spectators. I’d like to say “Ah well, toughies. It’s their loss.” However, it is our Club’s loss, too.
Things got off to an interesting start. On the pitch the Bayonne mascot out-Diggered Digger, to huge applause. He made as many friends as the sizeable Bayonne contingent of supporters, a happy band of brothers, whose robust singing in the West stand reminded me of London Irish in France. I wonder why the floodlights have been turned on. Is bad weather really expected?
Below decks, things were not so happy, as our visitors apparently protested volubly at our announced selection of two props on the bench. In the end a heavily strapped-up Michael Collins came out of the treatment room, and started at loose head. He inevitably, ritually and gravely came off again, having gone down in the first minute. Hatley replaced him. Later on in the second half Paice replaced Hatley at loose head, and, I have to say it, looked comfortable enough. Collins looked on from his crutches.
From Bayonne’s kick-off it is evident that we mean business. The Bayonne 10 tries to chip over the top; Flutey charges down the kick and Dawson nearly so nearly retrieves the ball on the deck. Bayonne hack into touch, and Collins comes off. From the line-out the ball goes down the line to Tagicakibau who is buried. Bayonne transgress and Irish get the first of many penalties (all kicked to touch.) From the line-out Catt tries to chip back to Tagicakibau on the left wing, but the ball ricochets off a Bayonne player and into touch on the 22. Scrum to Irish for knock-on, and ping! The pessimists among us wonder what the hell is going on in the front row. Shouldn’t have worried. It is only Mr Changleng imposing himself early. Bayonne run their penalty, and finally find touch on their own 10m line.
We run our next penalty, up the left wing where we cough up possession. Riki kicks the following one into the right hand (south west) corner, and we essay a rolling maul from the line-out. What’s with the feted Bayonne pack? We are pushing them all over the place. No dice, however, for we are held up. Another penalty on the 5m line and we try the same thing again. This time Robbie Russell falls off the side of the maul and scores. Flutey converts from out wide, and it doesn’t look like the Sale game at all.
7-0 after 5 minutes
We maul their kick-off back over our 10m line, where they get pinged for pulling down, and we go for touch. Catty is held in midfield and a Bayonne prop is seen on the wrong side getting a vigorous shoeing.
Frankly we are getting turned over a bit at present, so it’s a relief when Catty at the back hits a huge touch deep into Bayonne’s western corner. The defence finds a tame touch just over their 22, so an Irish line-out starts yet another attack, with Casey, Hatley and Skuse (the latter two playing at centre) make some hard inroads into the French defence, eventually putting Tagicakibau away up the middle. He is brought down just short. Scrum to LI, from which Danaher (?) chips too long, so it’s back for a 22 drop out. Breathless yet? We were!
Our backs, augmented by Magne and Dawson, and by occasional groupies from our front five, are looking good and full of hard running. Sadly, the Bayonne defence is quick and feisty, however. Well, they are at this stage. They are snuffing out our attacks, slowing down our ball and bringing on horrid memories of games we could not quite put away. Not that they are showing much when they do have the ball, which perhaps bodes well.
Armitage and Dawson go down in unison. Kieron is soon up and about, but Armitage’s injury looks quite serious and he is obviously in some pain as he hobbles back to the tail-gunner’s position. This doesn’t stop him from having a go, however, and in the 22nd minute he is only just brought up short after being put away by Catt. Am I being fanciful in believing that an uninjured Delon would have scored? He holds on and is penalised. Bayonne’s line-out only produces another Bayonne touch kick, which we throw in quickly and break left, where we knock on, on their 10m line. Sailosi T is down but seems OK, but Bayonne run at him immediately. A couple of kicks later and we turn them over and go left. Poor passing ends up with a Bayonne line-out. Our Samoan friend is then called off (27 mins) and a very business-like Bishop storms on in his place.
We are starting to make inroads into their line-out, and are quite obviously enjoying our rolling mauls. Bayonne by contrast seem intent on kicking away their possession. They are encouraged to do so as we always try to charge them down! What is also nice is that we are chasing our own kicks ahead with deadly intent.
Delon chips ahead and nails their 15 in possession. Flutey breaks but is brought down. Magne is pinged for crossing. Bayonne throw some handbags on our 10m line. We are penalised for delaying our throw. We fumble a bit, but steal a Bayonne line-out. Flutey breaks again and passes to Magne who seems to be well away - but the pass is adjudged forward. Their 4, Cleda, is binned, and Armitage speaks to him as he leaves the park with five minutes of the half left. Doubtless an encouraging word in French!
Flutey breaks yet again, and the ref signals advantage to LI right in front of the posts. Our Riki loses no time in banging over a drop goal to give Irish a priceless two score lead.
10-0 after 40 minutes
Bayonne get a scrum from the kick-off and they try valiantly to run it. They are mown down however, so their 10 has a go at a slightly long-range drop goal himself. He misses. Today, Riki would have goaled it. We finish the half in attack. The ball is well held up by Tiesi on the right (west) and Armitage attempts one of his trademark chips ahead. The ball goes dead, and so does the half.
That second half
Our tackling is aggressive to the point that Bayonne are not looking to get tackled!
A quick throw in by Bish to Flutey sees Riki chip ahead, follow up and nail the unhappy 9 who catches it. We run right, left, right again. We are not going to give up the ball! Tiesi gets a short hospital pass from Flutey.
A lovely flowing move involving Flutey, Roche and Armitage takes us right up to the Bayonne line, where a LI maul is just about halted by the whistle for an LI scrum a yard or two out. This time our visitors are pinged for a scrummaging offence. We take a short one via Bish who is held, but Robbie Russell gets his second from the ensuing ruck.
17-0 after 47 minutes
Almost from the kick-off we start moving forwards again. Some loose passing sees Casey clear up, and pass to Topsy Ojo, who sprints up the line and puts a considered boot to ball, past his two would-be tacklers! He belts past them and hurls himself at the ball, making contact only as it goes dead. We’ve seen this move before, and it usually works – although on one occasion earlier in the season he over-ran it, to his embarrassment.
Following the drop-out, Casey breaks and deals out some great hand-offs, putting Skuse away, and not for the first time. When the ball comes back, Armitage is herded into touch, however.
Our line-out is penalised for closing the gap, and Bayonne run it, knocking on on their 10m line. Edwards replaces the ever-present Hodgson, and is to have a good game, quite like his old self.
The LI scrum on the 10m line results in the simplest-looking of tries, but the reality is that it was wonderfully conceived and wonderfully executed. Simplicity is the hardest thing to create, as any artist will tell you. Edwards goes on the burst, and gets the line moving left. Tiesi takes it at full tilt on the 22, running in the direction of the left corner, with two men outside him. He comes in off his left foot, in a move that Gerald Davies would have been proud of, wrong foots everyone and dots down to the left of the posts. Pure poetry. Riki does the honours.
24-0 after 52 minutes
Strudwick now replaces Roche and the applause is evenly divided between the two. Judging by the number of replacements (on both sides) who start coming on, both the Bayonne and Irish managements feel the game is won. Fair play to Bayonne, however. They don’t look threatening but their players are still putting their tackles in and they are still trying.
Bayonne follow up their kick-off and camp for a while in the Irish western corner. They kick a penalty from in front to the corner but throw so long that Geraghty (now on for Catt) scoops it up in midfield, and Flutey kicks for safety, missing touch however. Moments later, play is up the other end, where the visitors knock on once more. From the scrum the ball zips down the line. Geraghty half puts Tiesi clear, but Flutey is coming on the angle and Gonzalo’s pop pass finds him unerringly. Riki converts his own try.
31-0 after 59 minutes
Paice now makes his propping debut for the senior side (It is difficult to remember that he is still a member of the Academy) replacing Hatley. The dam gates may look wide open but no one has told Bayonne! They are still tackling big time. Sadly, however, the water is rising and no one, but no one, is going to stop Topsy Ojo’s try.
I saw Dawson and Armitage in the move, but I suspect the hand of Magne as well to put Topsy clear on the burst. No one got near him! That bounder Flutey is up to his old tricks, and misses the conversion. The way he has played today, I’d forgive him if he’d missed all of them, however.
36-0 after 64 minutes
Murphy now replaces Magne, and everyone is delighted to see the big man back, even though ‘Charly’ has played a genuine blinder.
Four minutes later Tiesi goes down on the east side of the field. He gets up, but even from my seat in the west he looks groggy. Do we have any replacements left?
Bayonne now switch on the after-burners about 40 minutes too late, and steamroller up to our line where we turn over their possession and find touch. A bout of handbags breaks out, cause unknown, although I note that Paddy Lennon believes that Russell was objecting to an illegal tackle. Whatever. Robbie is yellow-carded, making the front row interesting. Hatley returns and Dawson leaves the park. Paice, doubtless thankfully, moves to hooker.
Bayonne maul their way over the line from a line-out in the corner, the result of a penalty. Van Schalkwyk is credited with the score.
36-5 after 75 minutes
Tiesi finally comes off, looking as though he is semi-conscious, so we line up to finish the game with 13 men, having presumably used up our ration of replacements. This doesn’t faze us one bit. Immediately from the kick-off, Murphy bursts from a ruck (or maul) just inside the Bayonne 22, and charges for the line. A steamroller would not have stopped him. Three Bayonne players certainly can’t! Geraghty misses the conversion, a la Flutey. Really!
41-5 after 76 minutes
We are now playing fast and furious with 13 men, but we are still trying to run it as attack is clearly the order of the day, and we don’t know what else to do. We terrify the Bayonne 14 into knocking on into touch, and then on the other side of the park they pass straight out, or is it in? to touch.
The ball zips down the line, Armitage wriggles around all over the place, everyone gets involved in a maul within sight of the line, and suddenly Big Bob Casey bursts free and scampers over under the posts. Geraghty can’t miss, and doesn’t.
48-5 Final score
LONDON IRISH: D Armitage, T Ojo, G Tiesi, M Catt (captain)(S Geraghty, 53), S Tagicakibau (rep: J Bishop, 26), R Flutey, P Hodgson (rep: D Edwards, 50), M Collins (rep: N Hatley, 2)(rep: D Paice, 60), R Russell (sin-bin: 70-80), R Skuse, B Casey, K Roche (rep: R Strudwick, 53), D Danaher, K Dawson (rep: N Hatley, 72), O Magne (rep: P Murphy, 66).
BAYONNE: V Noutary, J Nunez Poissek, R Dourthe (rep: J McLaren, 53), S Roque, B Lhande, G Fraser, S Rouet (rep: G Sudre, 66), E Coetzee (rep: H Wessels, 75), A Heguy (rep: G Hill, 53), H Wessels (rep: J Garcia, 47), T Cleda (sin-bin: 37-47), M Tewhata (rep: C Bergez, 53), G Combes, L Massabeau (captain), Y Lamour (rep: P Van Shalkwyk, 62).
Referee: Mr M Changleng (SRU)