Rugby Union: Burrows saves Exiles' blushes

London Irish 27 Rotherham 14
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IT WAS not as straightforward as it might appear. Only Rotherham's propensity to concede kickable penalties and the reliable left foot of Niall Woods ensured a comfortable passage into the quarter-finals.

Just six Allied Dunbar Premiership places separate these two sides, but the gulf was uncomfortably closer by the final whistle, which came following an incredible 11 minutes of injury time.

Rotherham were no mugs, as fifth place in Premiership Two would suggest. A competitive pack and competent backs posed problems from chilly start to icy close. In fact, the wind which cut across Sunbury possibly accounted for the thin crowd and could well have been the cause of Irish's early difficulties as they struggled to hang on to passes which could have unlocked the Rotherham line much earlier. Throughout the match the Exiles' handling fluctuated between daft and deft, but the latter moments produced some sublime touches.

Woods had kicked Irish into the lead with a 12th-minute penalty but the Yorkshire club sneaked in front six minutes later following a spell of intense pressure which took them well into Irish territory. The London side were caught off-side and conceded a penalty just a couple of metres short of their line. Before the Exiles could so much as gather their skirts, Rotherham's Canadian international back row, Mike Schmid, had turned the resultant tap penalty into a try, which the fly-half, Simon Binns, converted to give his side the lead.

Irish needed some fine play before they restored order to the tie. Niall Hogan was a constant source of trouble around the base of the scrum, while Mark McCall and Nick Burrows were not so much a handful as an armful in the centre.

Indeed, Rotherham's collective failure to bring down Burrows paved the way for Irish's 33rd-minute try. There had been some excellent periods of continuity which sandwiched a second Woods' penalty before the ball was swung first left then right as Burrows angled across the defence. He was eventually stopped at the fifth attempt but was able to recycle the ball to scrum-half Hogan whose long pass found full-back Conor O'Shea steaming to the corner.

Although Woods missed the conversion, his third penalty in the last minute of the half eased Irish further ahead. It was probably just what was needed because Irish emerged after the interval and were a lot more focused. When Binns missed a straightforward penalty seven minutes into the second half, they were back upfield within moments.

Rotherham cracked a little under the pressure when they were caught with their hands in a ruck and Woods slotted his fourth successful kick as the balance of the tie tipped inexorably towards the Exiles. As Irish took control up front they asserted themselves more rigorously. Woods' fifth penalty and McCall's injury-time try, converted by the left-wing, put the tie out of Rotherham's reach. Despite the bleak, dark winter, there was a glimmer of light for the out-of-form Irish.

London Irish: C O'Shea (capt); J Bishop, N Burrows, M McCall, N Woods; D Humphreys, N Hogan; J Fitzpatrick, R Kellam, G Halpin, G Fulcher, M O'Kelly, K O'Connell (C Bird, 26), M Morahan (K Spicer, 66), K Dawson.

Rotherham: M Umaga; D Lax, G Austin, J Harper, M Dawson; S Binns, G Easterby (D McIntyre, 79); M Pinder, R Wareham (T Murphy, 63), J Ashley (S Wilson, 55), J Dudley, D Cook, B Wade, M Schmid (capt), C West.

Referee: N Yates (Altrincham).