Irish class unsullied by mud

London Irish 21 London Welsh 3
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The Independent Online
SUNBURY-ON-THAMES was in danger of becoming Sunbury-under-Thames yesterday afternoon. The Arctic weather would have made Santa and his reindeer feel at home. The floodlights were blazing even before the 3pm kick-off. Water lay in deep puddles on the pitch, steam rose from the packs as they locked horns, and as the match progressed, it became ever harder to distinguish the players.

The Irish flanker Phil Irons, on the charge from a tap penalty, spilt the ball over the Welsh line near the end. In the first half, as he was trying to kick, the Welsh full-back Rhodri Phillips's foot just slid over the ball and he collapsed in a heap.

Internationals between Ireland and Wales are often characterised by their thunderous commitment, and the London sides yesterday were prone to being blinded by red and green mists respectively. One unsavoury punch- up in the second half left the Irish lock Colin Hall horizontal, dazed and confused in the mud.

The Irish and Welsh backs both weaved intricate patterns more suited to Paris in the spring than Sunbury in the bleak midwinter.

The Welsh have cut a swathe through League Four this season, recently posting a Courage League record of 25 matches without defeat. But class will out and after a slow start, during which Craig Raymond slotted a penalty for the Welsh, the Irish team's two-division superiority soon asserted itself.

In the 12th minute, Justin Bishop kicked through, the Welsh defence made a hash of it and Bishop's opposite winger, Michael Corcoran, flopped over the line before converting. He went on to emphasise why he is the leading points-scorer in English League rugby by adding two penalties either side of half-time.

This only served to underline the growing dominance of the Irish. No 8 Barry Walsh was prominent in many drives, and every time the rampaging Irish captain Gary Halpin handled in open play, he was greeted by the sort of Irish cheering once accorded Jack Charlton.

To their credit the Welsh never said die, and their scrum-half Gerallt Phillips was bundled into touch near the Irish line. As the end approached, the Welsh prop Mark Herbert asked for more volume from the stand which contained an unfeasibly large number of Santa hats. The crowd responded with a rendition of "Bread of Heaven".

It was, alas, not enough to rescue the Welsh as Corcoran notched up another penalty after Bishop was tackled late, and on the stroke of full-time Rob Henderson broke out of his own half to set up a try for the full-back Charlie Haly. Afterwards the Welsh fans consoled themselves with singing in the bar.

Against all the odds, it was exhilarating. Both teams deserve commendation for not allowing the weather to be the winner.

London Irish: C Haly; M Corcoran, S Burns, R Henderson, J Bishop; O Cobbe, T Ewington; J Fitzpatrick, R Kellam, G Halpin (capt), C Hall, P Coveney, P Irons, A Dougan, B Walsh.

London Welsh: R Phillips; D Lubliner, P Shaw, S Thomas, T Pike; C Raymond, G Phillips; M Herbert, A Tucker (capt), R Thomas, D Harries, N Thomas, L Thomas, M Russell, G Peacock.

Referee: S Lander (RFU).