London Irish 32
Leicester Tigers 41
A LOT of the crowd who came for the party will surely return for the rugby. Six tries, the lead changing hands eight times, gold-standard place-kicking and a nerve-shredding finale; if you didn’t enjoy this, then you probably wouldn’t enjoy any Premiership match.
The sight of green wigs, Guinness hats and plenty of plastic pint glasses on the approach to the Madejski Stadium hinted at the priority for many in attendance: what drove the point home was the reaction — or lack of it — to the kickers. Shots at goal are usually carried out to the backdrop of silence interspersed by a few determinedly idiotic boo-boys. Here we had a background chattering, akin to a busy café. It was surreal, and enough to subdue even the excitable PA announcer.
The kickers, however, seemed not to mind. Perhaps silence is over-rated. The great Grant Fox said his most intimidating atmosphere to kick in was before the hushed throng of Musgrave Park when Munster played the All Blacks in 1989. A peripheral din seemed to relax the marksmen here; put them of a mind that no-one was watching.
Toby Flood kicked 21 points on his way to a personal tally of 26. After an early miss, Tom Homer found his range and kicked superbly, his return from the boot was 19 points.
Three magnificent penalties from the Irish full-back in the closing stages seemed to have earned a famous win for the home side. Trailing 31-23 with 13 minutes left, Homer’s trio of monster kicks put the Exiles a point ahead.
But Irish’s scrum was always under pressure and when an Exile put-in culminated in the set-piece being wheeled, Toby Flood re-established Leicester’s lead from the resulting penalty.
Irish fought gamely to get a foothold in the Tigers’ half and work another penalty or drop goal opportunity but an intercept try from Tom Croft administered a cruel twist of the knife against a home side who, by a combination of spirit and opportunism, had managed to remain on the Tigers’ tail for 80-plus minutes.
The Exiles lost the first half two tries to one but managed to go in 16-12 ahead.
Irish began full of ambition and purpose. For the first 15 minutes they broke the gain line consistently with centre Joe Ansbro and hard-running winger Sailosi Tagicakibau particularly dangerous.
Their grip on territory and possession was rewarded by an early Tom Homer penalty and a drop goal from Dan Bowden on the quarter-hour mark.
Then the sleeping Tigers awoke. For the first time Leicester got a hold of possession and drove into the Irish 22. A series of backward-retreating scrums in front of the Exiles’ try-line looked like they would culminate in a penalty try, but the ball was eventually spun to Toby Flood who scrambled over.
The sight of the scrum in reverse seemed to infect the Irish psyche. Where they had been on the front foot, suddenly their momentum was non-existent, their progress backwards.
Leicester dominated the middle of the half and when Julian Salvi crashed over in the 28th minute, you feared a rout.
Irish, however, gathered themselves and a Homer penalty swung the pendulum again. On 36 minutes scrum-half Darren Allinson somehow broke through the Tigers lineout and released lock Bryn Evans for a try that shook the Madejski roof.
Half-time discussion was dominated by the actions of Ben Youngs – TV cameras caught the Leicester scrum-half drop a knee into No 8 Jamie Gibson, and then follow up with two punches. Simply put, the England international should have been sent off. He will likely face punishment for his unsolicited UFC audition.
Two Flood penalties early in the second half put Leicester in front but, once again, Homer responded. This time he did so with an excellent individual try. The full-back received the ball in midfield. Sensing the numbers weren’t sufficient to keep the attack going left, he stepped inside, evaded prop Marcos Ayerza, and sprinted on to score.
Flood closed the gap to two points with another penalty and, with the contest entering the final quarter, Manu Tuilagi touched down for Leicester after a break from Billy Twelvetrees. Another Flood penalty stretched the lead to a seemingly unassailable nine points, but then up stepped Tom Homer to seize the hour, only for impetus to turn towards the Tigers once more in the last two minutes.
A cruel defeat for Irish? Perhaps, but the fact remains they were out-scored by four tries to two and the Exiles five-pointers came as a result of moments of individual brilliance from Allinson and Homer rather than perfectly-executed backs moves or forwards drives.
The Irish scrum was bested throughout, though the lineout was more sound and managed a couple of steals. Bob Casey made a late cameo amid a glut of substitutions. He certainly isn’t the fastest in these last days of his playing career but he added aggression, nous and leadership when introduced and it was no coincidence the pack managed to win three late penalties for Homer to kick when Casey was on the field.
Afterwards, he joined his teammates in a lap of that field for the final time on a St Patrick’s Party. Many of the crowd stayed behind to show their appreciation, but quite a few didn’t. That, more than the pub-chatter during the kicks, was a pity after a fine game and, what has been for Casey, an outstanding 10 years in a London Irish jersey.