Christmas comes early for London Irish
Flying to a rugby match and arriving just in time for a quiet AG and the kick-off is something we may need to get used to in the HC, so, optimistically, I put in a little practice and allowed British Airways the pleasure of my company. While boarding I found myself in the company of one of the club’s directors, who was not forthcoming about anything much, apart from confirming that we have made a number of signings and should be announcing at least some of them during the week. Since I was told a week ago by a boot-room source that we’d be announcing a new centre LAST week, I think I’ll just wait and see.
The weather was balmy enough, and on arrival we ventured into the huge undercroft of the West stand, where a spit-roast pig was the first thing I saw - indoors. Why can’t we do this at the Madstad, then? A thin population of (mainly green-clad) drinkers suggested as poor a crowd as everyone had forecast, and Tony Byrne suggested that we’d all be able to move to better seats from our eyrie in the corner.
One of those rah rah footie style announcers eulogised about who knows what for far too long before kick-off. No idea what, for my brain switched off listening!
Now before you read this, be aware that I am one bloke stuck in the corner of a stand, without benefit of TV replays and long post-event consideration. If I have any ‘facts’ wrong, please be understanding. Few spectators can see (and write down) everything!
Let battle commence!
Irish bring the kick-off back in a rolling maul which collapses. As I write my notes, my neighbours all tell me that Hats has taken a knee to the head. The papers now tell me that he was penalised for illegal use of the boot. That is what the papers say, and the penalty went against us, so the dirty filthy bar steward must have done it, mustn’t he? It is clear that we in the stand know nothing! Matt Burke kicks a good goal from far out left.
3-0 and only two minutes on the clock
It is apparent that when we are not mauling we are going to run the ball, and we do so, if somewhat laterally. So, we decide to remedy things and break through another way. First we kick the ball almost flat across field to the right corner, and when that doesn’t produce a score we do the same to the left corner, where, sadly, it bounces once and goes out. (You can tell that we are in the Newcastle 22, can’t you?)
Sailosi Tagicakibau makes a good half break, and passes out of the tackle to Topsy Ojo, who in turn flips the ball to our two locks, up in support. The final taker, a French chap, drops the damned thing! End of promising move.
Moments later, Mr Owens penalises the Irish front row, which is already looking as though it will dominate proceedings. How confusing. It is usually the team getting a pasting that gets penalised. Falcons run the ball from their line out and we get penalised yet again. This time Burke misses his attempt at goal, so we can quickly forget that the Ref doesn’t seem to like us.
Colin Charvis tries to run our kick-off back to us, but Declan Danaher, my MOTM, bundles him into touch on half-way as though the bulky Charvis is a lightweight.
We run the ball, and Delon Armitage puts a long grubber into the Newcastle 22, from which Burke returns it with interest and to spare. Lesson One. Will we ever learn? This time, when we return it, we find touch. Newcastle are penalised for a ruck offence, but they tap back our line-out ball, only for their 14, Tom May, to kick out direct! We run the ball left, but get turned over in a post-tackle ruck, and penalised as well! To add insult to injury some of our passing so far has been wayward in the extreme. This has tended to come as a result of onrushing Falcons. Which journalist reckons that it was all London Irish in the opening quarter of an hour? It wasn’t!
The Falcons kick for touch falls short, and Ojo puts up an up-and-under by way of reply. I notice May pushing Danaher way off the play as they trot towards Ojo. This is hardly the first such off-ball incident I have noticed, but is possibly the most visible. Maybe what is good for the goose…?
Flutey breaks up the centre, creating a ruck in front of the posts. Casey passes out of the melee to the onrushing Russell, who burrows under or through the meagre defence to dot down half way between posts and touchline. Why does Robbie remind me of a terrier? Flutey converts.
3-7 after 16 minutes
Maybe this try will settle us down? We seem now to be getting the lions’ share of possession, and we take one against the head in a scrum, bang on 1pm, 21 minutes into the game by the stadium clock. Two minutes later we get a penalty from bang in front. Flutey obliges.
3-10 after 23 minutes
A bout of aerial ping pong follows the kick-off, and results in a scrum to Irish for a Newcastle knock-on. Our possession is penalised on the half way line, however, which isn’t quite the idea. However our hosts muck up their penalty line-out, giving another scrum to Irish. Oh goody! Now it is the visitors’ turn to get a penalty for some shoddy work on the deck by Andy Long, the Falcons hooker, who gets a lecture to rival Beefy’s earlier one. We waste our chance when Catt misses touch, but then we do find touch, handing the throw-in to Newcastle. Not to worry. We nick their throw! Talk about a game of errors!
Flutey attacks but slips on the Newcastle 22, nonetheless getting the ball away and down the line to the right, where Topsy slips as well. However, he recovers and runs through (past?) three tacklers to score to the right of the posts. Wow! Flutey misses the conversion.
3-15 after 31 minutes
I have to say that individual Newcastle runners look sharp, hard and dangerous, but their line as a line isn’t working. Rob Andrew evidently agrees with me, for Thompson comes on for Long at hooker, and Jonny Wilkinson replaces the hapless Dave Walder at 10. JW seems to be wearing heavy body armour. It may be nice for him, but what about the effect on those tackling him, or being tackled by him? I never did like American Football.
Olivier Magne bursts up the Irish right wing but ‘someone’ knocks on his pass, with the line seemingly awaiting again. Scrum awarded. The Newcastle front row rises high in the air, but somehow retains possession, and touch is found by wor Jonny. We run it from the line-out, but, yet again, we are penalised in the tackle area. What is it about this that we can’t get the hang of?
Following their line-out on half way, Wilko is decked in a hard but fair tackle, and takes an age to rise from the turf. It is not just Newcastle fans who hold their breath. I guess that we all want to see the wee man get back to playing uninjured. The tackle has jolted the ball forward, so scrum to Irish on the Newcastle 10, and we break up the right, but are recalled for a forward pass in midfield.
Our tackling is looking awesome, and my notes say that there is an awful lot of obstruction coming from Newcastle. (Maybe we are just as guilty? I honestly don’t know. I would not notice us doing the same, now, would I?!) As if to emphasise the point, Flutey drapes an arm around Wilkinson’s neck in an attempted high tackle, and Mr Owen immediately signals advantage. Newcastle manage to play their way right through their own advantage and kick the ball dead after it has ended.
Irish knock on following the kick-off, and from the scrum Elliot, Burke and May as a combination are only halted in the Irish back left corner, from which play moves back to the centre where the grateful defenders get a scrum for a forward pass.
And, really, that’s all that’s worth reporting about the first half.
For Falcons, Burke, Noon and Tait have all looked fast and dangerous at times, especially the incursive Burke, and the backs have at least started running onto the ball now that Wilkinson has come on. Are they standing deeper than before? The Newcastle back row has mostly been on its back foot, but Charvis, Woods and McCarthy have all looked hard to tackle with ball in hand.
For Irish, Danaher has been the stand-out kamikaze tackler, but the defence generally has been effective and organised. The fat boys are awesome in all phases. In attack we are going sideways more than I recall, and we are getting our fliers cramped on the wings. We are also taking a lot of ball standing still, instead of running onto it. However, we have taken our chances and are worth our lead.
The scores apart, the game doesn’t quite look a done deal from the run of play. Not yet.
London Irish enter their traditionally dodgy third quarter with a new hooker and tight-head prop (Paice and Skuse) and for Falcons, Williams has replaced Ward in their front row.
Elliot coughs possession and in turn we run play to the Newcastle 22 before knocking on ourselves. From their scrum Newcastle attack, and Woods delivers a hand-off to Mike Catt. Cheeky monkey, but I suppose that if we can dump-tackle Wilko, they are entitled! Ah, but what a difference an orange segment makes! It is obvious that Squeaky has told his lads to forget about winning up front and to bring their vaunted threes into the game. Could be fun!
Sadly for such ambition, Newcastle are penalised for dropping a maul, and Riki Flutey gets the sweetest of touches about one inch inside the left corner flag. We attempt to drive over from the line-out, but the 4th official can’t see a touch-down, so a scrum 5 is awarded and we try again. This time Paul Hodgson bursts right, towards the posts. Ruck. Go left. Ruck again. Go right, and get into a pile-up under the posts. A ruck it ain’t. Penalty to Newcastle, kicked to half way!!!
Kieron Dawson replaces Magne and Mike Collins comes on for the criminal Hatley. We seemingly do our replacements in pairs!
Newcastle run the ball to their left. We turn them over in the tackle and run to our left. Eventually, Catty gets bored and kicks into the Falcons goal area where the defence dots it down. My notes comment on the fact that so many of our tackles are above the waist. Is this the best way to stop big men on the charge? I remain unconvinced.
Flutey kicks another pin-point effort into the Newcastle corner, but it’s their line-out, and we knock on in our effort to steal. The scrum to Newcastle is quickly penalised in favour of Newcastle, who decide to run it. Catt makes a huge tackle on Elliott when he looks to be through, and the Falcons backline is starting to look threatening. Oo um. Newcastle bring play down to the Irish corner in front of me, where we are penalised for hands where they didn’t ought to be. Wilkinson, seemingly out of puff, belts the ball over my head for the penalty line-out. We’d expect to score from here.
Incredibly, Thompson throws too long, way over the top. Dawson pockets the ball, goes to ground and Catt gets a superb relieving touch. It’s not a one way race, this! From the line-out Falcons scrum half James Grindall is tackled in possession and stays down, eventually going off to be replaced by Hall Charlton. More aerial ping pong, and we swap penalties. The Captains are spoken to. Newcastle run it from the line out and Wilkinson again stays down after being tackled. He gets up but stays on the wing, looking willing but groggy. Tough boy, this. Meanwhile Noon breaks and sends a huge forward pass to his right wing, unremarked by Mr Owens. Armitage nicks possession in the Irish corner, Flutey misses a long touch and Newcastle run it back at us.
Somehow – I was unsighted – we turn over the Falcons possession and Tagicakibau shoots away up his left wing from somewhere near half way, with Armitage on his right shoulder for the inside pass, just in case. No need. Flutey converts from his ‘wrong’ side.
3-22 after 24 minutes
Darren Edwards replaces Hodgson, and Kennedy replaces Casey. Ward, replaced by Williams earlier, returns in place of Morris in the Falcons front row. Had a nice breather, Mickey?
Yet another Newcastle overthrow at a line-out leads to Irish possession and Dec Danaher appears twice in the move to put Tiesi in for a try. Flutey can’t quite convert this one, again from his ‘wrong’ side.
3-27 after 28 minutes
Some of the Irish crowd in the stand start chanting ‘We want five’ forgetting how close Newcastle have come to scoring – and how often. My neighbour feels that it is all over. Somehow I am not convinced and I say so.
McCarthy, Walder, Burke, Noon, Tait and Elliot have been looking particularly incisive, and Wilkinson has got his line moving better than Walder did. Finnegan replaces Perry at lock for Newcastle.
Both sides like to kick it behind their opposition, it seems, to variable effect. Right now, it seems that we do the kicking and Newcastle do the running back – in stark contrast to the first half. Finally it all gets too much for us, and Armitage is left facing two men on his own. He tackles the first (McCarthy?) into touch, but not before he has got the ball away to Woods, up in support. Wilkinson converts.
10-27 after 32 minutes
Shane Geraghty replaces Riki Flutey.
A penalty to Newcastle sees Danaher binned for trying, to my eyes, to wrest control of the ball from a Newcastle player. Clearly this isn’t on in front of Rob Andrew. Worryingly we are down to 14 men, and Newcastle are back in the game.
Following the inevitable line out, Irish are penalised again. Wilkinson punts to the corner, and I notice Nick Kennedy being wrestled to the ground elsewhere. He has his revenge however, by pinching Newcastle’s line out. Geraghty finds touch.
We also pinch Newcastle’s next line out, but knock on in the middle of the park, just when the last thing we need to do is cede possession. From the scrum, Newcastle run it, with Burke coming into the line yet again and feeding May for a well-worked try out wide. Wilkinson misses the conversion. He is human after all.
15-27 after 38 minutes
Catty may have been bad for a while but I haven’t noticed. He is now visibly hobbling around like an old man. Later we find it was cramp. Our bench is empty. He stays on, a true professional and a gutsy bloke. However, we are effectively down to 13 men, and Newcastle know it.
We can’t be bothered with all this sickness stuff, however, and extend ourselves by attacking left, at speed and in force. Geraghty and Armitage are pivotal, then Kennedy passes to Geraghty off the deck, but Shane, unsighted and at speed, cannot take it. Knock on.
A Newcastle line out sees them run the ball right, until Irish offend at a ruck. Mr Owens signals advantage, and Tait runs at high speed through a defence seemingly frozen in time, and scores under the posts. (It won’t look like that when I watch the video tonight, but that’s how it seemed yesterday!) Jonny converts.
22-27 after 44 minutes
How much added time will there be? Memories of Chris White at Franklins Gardens. My neighbour’s face has turned light green.
It seems that we are now incapable of securing possession, and if we do we are anxious to give it back to those nice locals.
Just about immediately from the kick-off Newcastle win a penalty on their 22, and Danaher returns. Can he make a difference, when we seem to have lost our will to live?
Now Newcastle get a penalty on our 10m line, for a transgression on the deck, and they find touch between the tryline and our 22. It’s no use looking at our watches. In the stand we sit transfixed, like a mouse in front of a hungry cat. There is absolutely nothing we can do but cheer, and we don’t have breath even for that.
Nick Kennedy for Pope, that’s what I say. He taps back to Edwards, but Digby’s chip doesn’t travel far into touch, and the repeat sees Newcastle go for the pushover. Their attempt is no more successful than ours, 30 minutes earlier. The TV official cannot see it so cannot give it. There are now 50 minutes on the clock, and there seems no end to our agony.
The scrum 5 sees Newcastle put the ball out wide, but Burke's pass to their right wing, May, is too far in front of him and he cannot get at it. I feel so sorry for the guy – but grateful, too.
And that really was that!
On balance we just about deserved the result because we were on top for 75% of the game. However, had Newcastle nicked it they would have deserved it. 19 unanswered points in under 20 minutes is some fight-back.
That’s three matches on the trot in which we have attempted to achieve defeat from the jaws of victory, using the last 20 minutes to chuck away all advantage. There must be reasons and causes, but they are beyond me. I trust they are not beyond Brian and Toby.
Newcastle: M Burke, T May, M Tait, J Noon, A Elliot, D Walder (rep: J Wilkinson, 34), J Grindal (rep: H Charlton, 57), M Ward (J Williams, 40), A Long (rep: M Thompson, 34), R Morris (rep: M Ward, 67), A Perry (rep: O Finegan, 70), G Parling, M McCarthy, B Woods (rep: C Harris, 80), C Charvis (captain).
London Irish: D Armitage, S Tagicakibau, G Tiesi, M Catt (captain), T Ojo, R Flutey (rep: S Geraghty, 70), P Hodgson (rep: D Edwards, 66), N Hatley (rep: M Collins, 49), R Russell (rep: D Paice, 40), F Rautenbach (rep: R Skuse, 40), B Casey (rep: N Kennedy, 66), K Roche, D Danaher, O Magne (rep: K Dawson, 49), P Murphy.
Referee: Mr Nigel Owens (WRU)