Rugby Union: Dazzling Irish dash for Europe

London Irish 47 Bath 22
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WHILE DICK BEST, the London Irish coach, occupied a place near the half-way line, Andy Keast, his assistant, sat in the back of the stand at Sunbury to gain a better view of the action. Kitted with the latest technology, Keast was able to relay vital information to the Irish dug- out.

When Stephen Bachop was taken off in the 75th minute it was on Keast's instructions. The message relayed to Best was that Bachop was "out on his feet, absolutely knackered". When the captain, Conor O'Shea, kicked for goal towards the end that, too, was under orders. "We wanted to reach the psychological barrier of 50 points," Keast said. "We also wanted to give the team a breather."

Nobody scores 50 points against Bath, although the Irish played with such commitment and flair they did seem capable of passing the half-century mark.

A couple of months ago the Exiles were stalking Leicester at the top of the Premiership, but then suffered two defeats to Wasps and were beaten at Sale two weeks ago with a drop goal in the dying minutes.

That allowed Bath, who had a wretched run over Christmas but who had regrouped and refocussed with six wins from their last seven matches, to move above the Irish into third place. "They had sneaked above us and so this was a real four-pointer for both sides," Best said.

At stake are six places in next season's European Cup, with a financial reward estimated at pounds 1m per club. "We felt we needed to win three out of our remaining four games and, by losing to Sale, we made it tough for ourselves," Best added.

His game plan on Saturday was to prevent Bath scoring. "Our preparations were based on defence," Best admitted. "But we found ourselves in such good attacking positions we were able to play the game on the front foot."

Inspired by O'Shea and Bachop, London Irish over-ran Bath, who were submerged beneath clever, fast and incisive attacks. Kevin Maggs, Bath's Irish international centre, is one of the best tacklers in the game, but even he was bemused by the audacity and aggression of O'Shea, Brendan Venter, Nick Burrows and Robert Todd, the latter scoring three tries.

O'Shea and Maggs were the only two Irishmen on the pitch, not that it bothered the Exile supporters. This was a lucrative day for Irish, who had never beaten Bath in the league, with a record crowd of 6,600.

Like Richmond at the Athletic Ground, Irish have been frustrated in their attempts to develop Sunbury, so next season they will almost certainly share The Stoop with Harlequins. Whether they will do so as partners in Europe remains to be seen.

The Irish have only two League matches remaining, at home to Saracens and away to Bedford. Saturday's victory puts them back in third place, two points ahead of Bath, three ahead of Saracens and five ahead of Quins, but all those clubs have games in hand.

London Irish: Tries Todd 3, Berridge, Burrows, Hardwick, O'Shea; Conversions O'Shea 3. Penalties O'Shea 2. Bath: Tries Catt, Regan, Tindall; Conversions Catt 2. Penalty Catt.

London Irish: C O'Shea (capt); S Berridge, N Burrows, B Venter, R Todd; S Bachop (J Brown, 75), P Richards (K Campbell, 79); P Rogers (N Hatley, 57), R Kirke, R Hardwick (K Fullman, 62), M Bird (I Feaunati, 70), N Harvey, J Boer, R Strudwick, R Gallacher.

Bath: M Perry (T Adebayo, 79); I Balshaw, K Maggs, M Tindall, A Adebayo; M Catt, G Cooper (A Nicol, 46); D Hilton (K Yates, 46), M Regan, V Ubogu, M Haag (B Sturnham, 46), S Borthwick, R Earnshaw (R Webster, 57), D Lyle (capt), R Bryan.

Referee: B Campsall (Yorkshire).