Saracens somehow manage to come second
Poachers 30 – Gamekeepers 18
It seems ungrateful to say so after a five point four try victory over Saracens, but this was not a day when performance triumphed. In fact, Irish won the game largely because we are now almost world-class poachers of the loose ball, and because one or two of our players have learnt some ‘wise’ ways during our march towards world domination, and third place in the Premiership. I say largely, because I can think of at least one try denied to Saracens by referee Sean Davey. Had it been awarded we could not have complained. Had it led to a Saracens win, we could not have claimed it was against the run of play.
However, except where absolutely necessary, this piece is not going to be about Mr Davey or his fitness to referee the next Rugby World Cup Final. How can you criticise a referee for a match he was never really at?
Happily, deliberately dirty play is not among the new habits adopted by London Irish this season. I am not claiming that our squad are all angels, choirboys out of Sunday School, but they do not generally indulge in the kind of unpleasantness which threatens health and ends careers. I don’t think Neil Back’s cynical ‘hand of God’ features in Toby Booth’s forwards training, either, even if the ‘hand of Dawson’ (and others) has occasionally been seen in the odd ruck!
It is with a degree of sadness, then, that I await reports that the citing officer has reported a certain Saracens prop for dancing the light fantastic on someone’s head on the East Stand side of the field. (From the West stand I thought it was Flutey. Others report that it was Casey. How can the two be confused? Were there two incidents?) In his defence the prop concerned won’t be able to claim mistaken body parts, or that he was trying to reach a ball hidden illicitly on the other side of our fly half. The ball, and the play, were far, far away at the time. I doubt I’ll hear another word.
Somehow, off the ball transgressions seldom seem to get pinged these days, and the players are not permitted to take matters into their own hands, as in days of yore. I suppose this is probably the reason why off-ball incidents of skulduggery seem to be on the increase. When will officialdom deal with the problem?
Given that Sarries were playing for pride, and Irish for a best ever finish in the Premiership, it was probably never realistic to expect a repeat of the previous week’s try-fest at Wycombe. Given the relative strength of the visitors’ front row and the absence of Catt and Magne it was possibly even less likely. However, very few of us could have expected the ill-tempered, downright niggly spectacle which ensued.
I am afraid that I put this down squarely to the absence of the referee, the absence of a firm hand of authority, respected by the players, whose wishes were understood, and whose consistency of decision-making was unquestionable. The absent official would not have been helped greatly by his own officials, either, for they ignored some more serious incidents (cf Flutey/Casey, above) and flagged some others of microscopic significance to the flow of the game. What is it about a flag and the need for spectacles - or should that read brains and balls? Be that as it may, I am going to ignore them, just as they ignored so much.
So, the score and result apart, how was the day?
Our last day at the Madstad for many months
Apart from a brief flurry of early rain, it was basically a pleasant afternoon, just right for rugby. A crowd of 11, 325 rewarded our recent play, and judging by the number of shirts seen from other GP clubs, we were possibly a greater attraction than some of our rivals. (Or maybe they just couldn’t get tickets?) I sometimes wonder whether we yet appreciate the commercial potential of a 24,000 seat stadium and its implications for bigger budgets. I bet that Ian Taylor does!
Our visiting supporters from Watford were as sporting and pleasant as ever, mixing well and chatting amicably. Somehow they are always like this, those Fez-wearers. Could it be their relief at being away from their own remarkable facilities?
I was delighted to note that good sportsmanship was not one-sided, the largely green coloured Lower West Stand giving Kyran Bracken a standing ovation when he left the field for the last time. A fitting salute to a great player. He did seem to notice, too.
In the hotel bar beforehand, pass the parcel took place with the LISC player awards, as they sought their ultimate caretaker. It was a bit like the old school’s ‘Parents Day’ too, as the Sheasby clan hove in sight, returning to the scene of their son’s former glory. The Danahers, Hodgsons and Laidlaws were there as well, adding to what is really a very family atmosphere.
Awaiting the kick-off we were amused by the banned criminal Brian Smith, his true feelings hidden behind a conveniently-draped LISC banner. (Thank you, Gabriel Scally) The little Smith face peeked above the green, and as he caught friendly eyes, he smilingly held up his hands in invisible handcuffs. It’s always good to see management not taking themselves too seriously! After the game, block G7, below Smithy, turned to give him some very personal applause and support. Nice.
After the final whistle, well over half the spectators stayed in their seats to applaud the people who had made our season possible, both players and rugby department staff. The squad gathered on the park, along with their coaching and medical mentors, and the Directors of the Club, too.
Photos by cormac
Photos by cormac
The tannoy (whether featuring Caimh or Paddy, I could not tell) went through the names one by one, and then came to the departing players. Dawson, Gustard, Halsey, Laidlaw, Penney and Strudwick were all known or suspected departures, but we were brought to a full stop when the names of Adrian Flavin and Darren Edwards were also read out. Flav was able to tell me later about how Connacht had come after him, and also about how sad he’d be to leave his rugby home. Gussie, Laidlaw, Strudders and Penney all echoed that sentiment in other conversations, and all five said they’d never forget or abandon the many friends they have made among the LI supporters.
Photos by cormac
Between them, the LISC’s Vice Chairman Simon Browne and Tony and Maureen Byrne of St Clare’s Travel awarded Mike Catt with a magnificent trophy as Supporters’ Player of the Year, and Topsy Ojo with another, only fractionally less magnificent trophy as the Supporters’ Young Player of the Year. Personal awards were made to the two departing icons of the Club, Kieron Dawson and Ryan Strudwick. (Apologies to the Byrnes and to LISC, but I didn’t note who gave what to who. I was clapping too hard!)
Photos by cormac
However, the highlight of the accolades was reserved for Digger. Phil Murphy and Bob Casey carried him shoulder-high to salute his departing alter-ego, Dean. It says a lot when even the players respect and appreciate a mascot. Digger’s ‘spirit’ over the years has richly earned this appreciation, not least with his countless acts of personal kindness, but also for his work for charities – and his sublime cabarets. Digger is dead; long live Digger.
London Irish kick off and Kieron Dawson, in his last home start, shows intent when he nails Saracens under their own posts, winning a 5m scrum. Delon Armitage comes on the burst at outer centre, but the Sarries’ defence holds and they eventually turn over the Irish possession and find relief on the West stand touchline. Here the visitors also manage to turn over the Irish line out after an overthrow, and Bracken nearly, so nearly, breaks through. A high tackle gives advantage to Saracens, and after a forward-led burst, Harris is able to run in for the opening score. Jackson converts.
0-7 after five minutes
Poster by Mrs Chicken
The Indian signs are not good for Irish, with a turnover and a steal in the opening phase suggesting that we shouldn’t indulge in the frilly stuff at the expense of the basic responsibilities when in possession.
Michael Collins steals the Saracens’ possession from the kick-off, but Willis’s pass hugs the deck as it bobbles towards an appalled and stationary Geraghty at 13. Scrum to the visitors. A few long range kicks later Sarries are on the attack again, in the Irish half, when Chesney and Skuse are observed comparing handbags. The uninvolved Kennedy gets some attention too. The referee consults his touch judge and speaks to both captains. Eight minutes have elapsed. Penalty to Irish.
From the line out on the Irish 10m line, the ball reaches Armitage in the centre and a ruck develops. Scrum to Sarries. Humph. The visitors’ back row is causing some problems in our centre. Would they do so if we had quicker possession? I think not, but dare not look at Smithy, behind me. As if to recover their moral ascendancy, Geraghty and Dom Feau’nati put in a double tackle and get penalised. Jackson puts play into the Irish 22 where we are penalised again, and Jackson converts.
0-10 after 12 minutes
Most of the play is coming from Sarries, and if we don’t wake up we are going to get a seeing-to. There are no signs of our form at Wasps in the threes, and our pack is not exactly dominant! Punch-drunk by success?
Sarries knock on the Irish kick-off, and this time I note some great passing from the tackle in the Irish attack from the scrum. The move is ended when Leguizamon goes to ground in the visitors’ 22, our possession is turned over and Jackson gets a long touch well into the Irish half. We try to run our line out possession, but Saracens seem to be copying our defence and smother our efforts.
Then that wonderful little man, Thomas Castagnaide, gets away up the middle and we await a second Saracens try. It is not to be. However, moments later he is emulated by our tight head prop, Richard Skuse, who bursts into the loose on our 22 like a demented rhinoceros, ball in hand. This must surely end in tears and another turnover? Not on your life. Skusey, showing remarkable pace and balance for a West Country lump, draws his man twice and puts Armitage away up the left wing. Delon runs the full length of the half and scores wide out. Flutey’s kick is unsuccessful. Murphy replaces Leguizamon, off for a blood injury.
5-10. Seventeen minutes gone
Flutey adds interest in returning the kick off, and Vyvyan tips the ball into touch for an Irish throw. Much hilarity. However, from our line out possession, Topsy Ojo is penalised for holding on in the tackle, but a minute later more than makes up for it with an excellent mark, taken quickly, followed by a burst into the opposition half, past startled Saracens. Dawson spoils an unexpected attack by firing a pass at speed into Flutey’s chest.
The Saracens scrum goes straight through ours, and results in a penalty to them., kicked to touch on the home side’s 22. Irish are penalised for pulling down the post line out maul. Jackson converts and Leguizamon returns.
5-13 after 24 minutes
Irish win a penalty on the Sarries 22, and Flutey converts.
8-13 after 26 minutes
Considerable ping pong is punctuated by Leguizamon giving Tagicakibau a pass with hospital written all over it. Sarries break left, and Bracken knocks on, unseen, and the ball reaches Castagnaide, who accelerates through a gap which isn’t there, and chips delicately to the try line. Frankly, all he has to do is follow and fall for the score. However Leguizamon grabs his shirt, earning a yellow card and a penalty against. Why wasn’t it a penalty try? Hatley comes on for the limping Collins, who reappears on crutches after the match.
Sarries call for a scrum against Irish’s 7 man pack which shudders visibly. Surely Yates and Visagie have been having enough fun, without reducing their opposition? Might we have been tempted to put Feau’nati in at 8 to balance things up? The scrum is reset three times, before Saracens finally attack the openside and knock on. Flutey grabs the pill, makes good ground to the 10m line and hoofs it upfield, chased by Armitage and Dawson, who combine to move it further towards the line. Armitage follows fast and gets his second try, converted by our Riki.
15-13 after 32 minutes
Talk about grave robbers! Had I been a Saracen I might have been tempted to use bad language. They have had most of the play and have mostly been undone by their own ineptitude, and of course by … er, no … not going there.
Saracens run the ball back at Irish right from the outset, but Jackson telegraphs a pass and, to add insult to injury, Ojo latches onto it, and no one on the pitch is fast enough to go with him, so he scores alone, but not unloved. That is our second try since the Geezer left the park. Should we insist on playing with only 14 men in future?
22-13 after 35 minutes
Taking our tip from Sarries, we attack from the kick off. Dawson and Skuse combine nicely and a decisive break looks to be on before Mr Davey calls a forward pass. There is derision from the crowd but I note that Daws was almost awaiting the whistle, so it was probably a better call than the crowd thought. Dawson and Ben Willis nearly charge down Castagnaide’s clearance.
Raiwalui, the large Sarries lock, is yellow carded for killing the ball, and I wonder how long Vyvyan will survive, since he spends a lot of time either offside or coming into rucks from the side. However. Raiwalui passes Leguizamon as he returns from the bin. I expect at least one Sarries try while they are down to 14 men.
We miss a penalty in front of the posts, to my huge surprise since I am already writing in 25-13 in anticipation!
Leguizamon runs the ball back at Sarries from the 22 drop-out, but knocks on. (He seems to be losing a lot of possession when tackled, doesn’t he?) Saracens attack, led by a big run by Yates, and put their equally large Chesney in at the left corner. Told you so! However, Mr Davey calls a forward final pass. I can’t argue. However, instead of an Irish scrum, play is marched back to the opposite corner for a (much) earlier offence. That was a lot of advantage! They take a short one, and while Mr Davey is giving a penalty for an Irish offside on the left wing, a mass brawl breaks out in front of the Irish posts. Order restored, Sarries take another short one but knock on under the posts.
Barry Everitt comes on for Flutey, though whether due to injury, Flutey’s place-kicking or to preserve Riki for games to come we cannot tell. We soon find out that the little maestro has lost none of his skill during his long injury absence, when he kicks the ball dead on Sarries 10m line in front of the West stand from behind our 22 in front of the East stand.
Mr Davey misses our over-population of the line out, Bracken nearly gets away again, and Jackson tries an Eddie Waring special which Leguizamon returns. Sarries rip out possession on the deck and put Castagnaide away. From a roughly equivalent position to Delon’s first score, Thomas covers exactly the same ground and scores a wonderful but unconverted try.
22-18 after two minutes
First half nerves return to my tummy. It all seems to be a bit too much for Oom (Uncle) Cobus Visagie as well, for he is up to his neck in a rough-house straight from the whistle, to cries of “off, off” from the crowd. Referee and touch judge compare hair styles, and a penalty is awarded to Irish. Visagie remains. How, I still don’t know.
From our line out in the Sarries 22, we try a rolling maul, Willis breaks and we get into that sterile area called repeated rucks. Geraghty is caught by one arm and swung around in the air. Somehow he gets boot to ball while in mid-flight, and sends a perfect grubber to the left wing. Class or luck? In a mirror image of the play leading to Chesney’s disallowed first half try, play returns to the south west (right) corner for an Irish penalty, where a long period of line-assault ensues, finally broken by a Jackson interception, followed by a Sarries penalty on their 22. Raiwalui returns.
Sarries’ line out ball is seriously overthrown and Irish get possession and run it, Armitage eventually chipping through. The receiver is well nailed. Ryder, the other Saracens lock, departs for the sin bin and I fear more Sarries tries in his absence.
Bracken and Byrne now depart, and the Lower West Stand rises to applaud the retiring Bracken, and Paddy Lennon marks the occasion on the tannoy.
A play or so later Murphy comes on for Leguizamon, and Feau’nati and then Dawson knock on to end different moves. Casey nicks a Saracens line out, Geraghty gets a good touch and the touch judge disallows at least eight yards of it to loud protests from the crowd. Casey pinches this line out as well, and the ball spins down the line to Ojo, who punts. Casey is up in support. Somehow we contrive to knock on in the corner with the line begging. Almost our first conventional threequarter movement of the game, too. However, we now manage to turn over the opposition’s possession in the tackle and win a scrum on the 22. Skuse breaks from our attacking line, but play is recalled for an Irish penalty back where the scrum had been. Everitt kicks it for a seven point difference in scores.
25-18 after 20 minutes
Kieron Roche comes on for Big Bob Casey, and moments later the slight Gonzalo Tiesi replaces the almost equally Big Dom Feau’nati. I do hope Sarries underrate Tiesi’s tackling. Almost immediately, Saracens drop the ball in the backs and Neal Hatley is at the fore in driving the ball up. It’s our line out, but Mr Davey replaces it with a Saracens scrum. Their possession leads directly to yet another lengthy Castagnaide break. He finally passes to Vaikona who is ushered into touch towards the corner. Ouch!
Saracens are looking powerful in attack and are spending far too much time close to our line. The Irish tackling is, however, awesome. We drive play back to our 22 and win a scrum for a knock on. Everitt gets a good touch. The line out is penalised in favour of Saracens, who find touch on our 22. We nick the throw, but only by tapping it into nowhere, and Sarries nearly score in the mayhem which results. We get the all important line out, however, but only get a short touch from it, giving possession back to the rampant Saracens, who attempt a rolling maul. Kennedy is yellow-carded for pulling it down, and Sarries go for touch. With only five minutes left they need the seven points!
They try to maul again, and the Saracens 17 is observed by 11,000 people (less the referee and adjacent touch judge) to deliver a haymaker to Hatley, who has his head in the business end of the maul. Beefy shakes it off.
A 5m scrum follows, but Sarries have stage fright, and pass behind their threequarter line, enabling Irish to harry and chase through. Dawson legs it after a lovely chip further behind. However, these Sarries are made of stern stuff, and get all the way back to our line. Now really!
Hodgson comes on for Willis, who has had a good game. Sarries knock on. Are these events connected? I doubt it! Topsy Ojo is announced as LI’s Man of the Match. It really is all Saracens at this stage. Castagnaide, also having a fine game, tries to wriggle through not once but several times, and then suddenly he makes the ultimate sacrifice, passing straight to the intrusive Ojo. Topsy flies away for the try bonus point. Barry misses the kick but it doesn’t really matter a lot to anyone.
30-18 with two minutes to go
The game ends with another Sarries knock-on in midfield.
One thing is for certain… if we play like this again in the play-offs or the Euro Final, we’ll get murdered.
: D Armitage, T Ojo, S Geraghty, D Feau'nati (rep: G Tiesi, 61), S Tagicakibau, R Flutey (B Everitt, 40), B Willis (rep: P Hodgson, 76), M Collins (N Hatley, 28), R Russell (rep: D Paice, 50), R Skuse, B Casey (captain)(rep: K Roche, 61), N Kennedy (sin-bin: 71-80 ), D Danaher, K Dawson, J M Leguizamon (sin-bin, 28-38)(rep: P Murphy, 18-25, 51).
: T Castaignede, D Scarbrough, K Sorrell, D Harris (rep: A Powell, 65), T Vaikona (rep: R Haughton, 64), G Jackson, K Bracken (rep: M Rauluni, 50), K Yates (rep: N Lloyd, 45), S Byrne (M Cairns, 50), C Visagie (rep: B Broster, 72), S Raiwalui (sin-bin: 38-48), T Ryder (sin-bin: 49-59), K Chesney, B T Russell (rep: D Seymour, 60), H Vyvyan (captain).