Irish adventure goes unrewarded

London Irish 21 Leicester 46; Pilkington Cup semi-finals: Nervous Leicester are given a fright by the lower order as Gloucester lack incisive edge
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A GAME which was as much a testament to the human spirit as it was a demonstration of rugby's finer art. Fast food rather than haute cuisine, nevertheless it provided a compelling spectacle and rich entertainment.

London Irish, with a mixture of Gaelic guile and cavalier adventure exposed all manner of raw nerves in this Leicester side for long periods of the tie. Their policy of organised chaos, conducted at breakneck pace, had Leicester so rattled throughout the middle quarter that their discipline at times completely deserted them. Not only did they concede 11 consecutive penalties in that period but they leaked 13 points and reached half-time battered and bewildered and grateful for their slender one-point lead.

Having for so long played their rugby with 10 men, Leicester were bemused by the prospect of employing all 15 although, to be fair, they kept plugging away. Not until the 80th minute when Matt Poole scored Leicester's sixth and final try from a typical rolling maul did they shut the game down as they could so easily have done from the start. But they probably reckoned that this was a match they were never going to lose despite the Exiles' dervish-like assault in the middle stages. The result was a hugely entertaining contest. Never mind that it was often shapeless and haphazard.

Nobody seriously believed the pre-match claims that the Irish were interested only in promotion to the First Division and that this cup-tie was nothing more than an unwelcome distraction from the main task. From the start they played with refreshing abandon and a zest for the play which would not have been possible had their minds been on other things.

They also displayed commendable resilience coming back from the devastation of conceding eight points in the first 10 minutes, first to a try scored with ominous ease by Rory Underwood who had taken an inside pass from Jez Harris, and then to Harris's drop goal from a ruck set up by Neil Back.

Leicester's comfort zone extends no further than their pack these days and perhaps with the ease of their early scores they became complacent. Not only that but Martin Johnson was not getting it all his own way at the front of the line-out. Colin Hall, more by ingenuity than inches, was stealing a remarkable amount of possession which was put to profitable use by David Humphreys and used even more effectively by the burly centre Rob Henderson. It was Henderson who broke through Leicester's fragile midfield and fed Paul Flood who lost the ball in the tackle. But Humphreys fly-hacked through and won the race to the touchdown.

Unfortunately for the Irish it was at this point that their defence crumbled to allow John Wells and then Johnson free access to the try line. With John Liley converting Johnson's try Leicester led 22-8 and the tie, we thought, was as good as over. Not a bit of it. The confident Irish backs, coached by Clive Woodward, came at Leicester from all angles and from all manner of unpromising situations.

Henderson, surprisingly light on his feet, weaved past three Leicester defenders to score a marvellous try which Michael Corcoran converted. This sent the alarm bells ringing in Leicester's ranks and they displayed the darker side of their nature. Dean Richards was given a good wigging from the referee John Gadjovich and Back was shown the yellow card. Corcoran meanwhile helped himself to two more penalties and only one point now separated the sides.

London Irish began the second half as they had finished the first. They swarmed, they stung and they had Leicester back-pedalling. Then came the moment which turned the match. Deep in the Leicester 22 the ball squirted out to Underwood who sped upfield and although he was eventually brought to ground the Irish were stranded and in no position to pick up Phil Delaney who crossed for the try. Liley converted and kicked another penalty before Harris scored the softest of tries, his knock-ongoing undetected by the referee.

From then on it was plain sailing and Poole's try while it confirmed the gulf in class between the divisions did less than justice to the Exiles' courage and adventure on the day.

London Irish: C O'Shea; M Corcoran, P Flood, R Henderson, J Bishop; D Humphreys, T Ewington; L Mooney, R Kellam, G Halpin (capt), C Hall, A Meadows, A Dougan (P Irons, 75) C Bird, B Walsh.

Leicester: J Liley; S Hackney, R Robinson, P Delaney, R Underwood; J Harris, A Kardooni; G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson, M Poole, J Wells, N Back, D Richards (capt).

Referee: G Gadjovich (Canada).