Exiles show the power of positive thinking

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London Irish 11 West Hartlepool 10

Despite the fact that it was played on what looked like a paddy field (no offence meant) both teams contributed to a compelling cup tie, totally absorbing and thoroughly refreshing. While London Irish's season of dreams continues apace, West Hartlepool, without a single point in the First Division, saw their year broken by a point at Sunbury.

As far as the Exiles are concerned, the cup is a sideshow to their blinkered campaign of winning promotion. Clive Woodward, the Englishman who has galvanised the Irish, returned from skiing just in time to see his side scale another peak. "It wasn't life or death," Woodward said. "I was far more relaxed than I've been all season."

If this was relaxed - he was leaping about the touchline like a demented salmon - it would be interesting to see him when he's worked up. Similarly the team approached the game as if their lives depended on it. "Our forwards totally surprised me," Woodward said."If this had been a league game I'd have been upset at not scoring more points."

With West heading for demotion and the Irish going for promotion, the home club were hardly the underdogs. They will assume that status in the semi-finals and when they enter the hat today they should not be disappointed if they are drawn away. There were about 4,000 people at Sunbury and the ground cannot cope with more.

It was not just a refusal to keep things tight that made this game refreshing. There was also a striking honesty. West were awarded a penalty try which looked harsh but Woodward said: "It was a fair call, a brave call." And Mark Ring, the Welshman invested with the three-year job of reviving West, said the Irish deserved to win "on their attitude alone. You can see what Woodward's done. I take my hat off to them."

Ring must have been gutted by this result but he did not show it. Recently appointed as director of coaching, he was not sure, until getting clearance from the Rugby Football Union on Friday, whether he was eligible to play. He put himself on the bench and when he came on in the second half his touch of class showed. Ring, who had a drop-goal deflected in the last minute by a player who was offside, now has the job of keeping Tim Stimpson at the club. "The players will go where the money is," Ring said."We need a proper transfer system, we need leadership from the RFU. It isn't enough to say, right lads, the game's gone open."

Open, and at a frantic pace, is the way the Irish play it. Their backs stand close to the gain line and if there is a flaw it is that they are sometimes so flat they invite the interception. Ashley Parker was unlucky not to get a try by such means. "If a threequarter move breaks down," Ring observed, "referees automatically assume it's because of offside."

Gary Halpin, who has taken to the Irish captaincy like a duck to water, has had a self-imposed break from international rugby but, with Peter Clohessy banned and contemplating retirement, Halpin may return to the national squad next season. Like Woodward, though, he is not deflected from the Exiles' main goal for long. "We have a sense of identity, a united cause," he said. "I don't give a crap who signs for us as long as we go up."

On a day as wet and as dark as a pint of the black stuff, the only Irish try was scored by an Australian, Tim Ewington. "He qualifies for Ireland," Halpin said," on the grounds that his grandmother once backed two winners at the Galway races." Some caps have been won from a less convincing lineage.

London Irish: Try Ewington; Penalties Corcoran 2. West Hartlepool: Penalty try; Conversion Parker; Penalty Stimpson.

London Irish: C O'Shea; M Corcoran, R Henderson, P Flood, J Bishop; O Cobbe, T Ewington; L Mooney, R Kellam, G Halpin (capt), D Peters, A Meadows, A Dougan, B Walsh, C Bird.

West Hartlepool: T Stimpson (capt) (M Ring, 44); J Williams, A Blyth, P Hodder, M Wood; A Parker, S Cook; P Beal, T Herbert, M Shelley, C Murphy, K Westgarth, R Leach, D Mitchell, A Brown.

Referee: S Lander (Irby, Wirral).

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