Rugby Union: Imports keeping Exiles in touch

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Richmond 13 London Irish 25

THEY MAY be as Irish as Table Mountain but Dick Best's recruitment of southern hemisphere talent is beginning to pay dividends. When the former England coach had a clear-out at the end of last season, bringing in a posse of South Africans and New Zealanders, his forecast for the new-look Irish was to occupy the middle ground of the Premiership.

After completing an impressive Christmas programme with victory over Richmond at the Madejski Stadium before nearly 10,000 hardy souls on Saturday, Best was expanding his horizons. "The side is beginning to believe in itself," he said. "It's all mental... that magical word confidence. If we can win six or seven matches on the bounce I might have to revise my expectations."

The next week or so will provide the acid test. London Irish, who began the season with a stunning victory at Newcastle, meet the reigning champions at Sunbury on Saturday, followed by perhaps an even tougher challenge against Northampton at Franklin's Gardens a week tomorrow. "It would be a considerable achievement to complete the double over Newcastle," Best said. "Although I imagine it will be a fairly brutal affair. We have done a lot of work with the forwards. They're a bit lightweight but in the last few games we've been back to our tenacious, scavenging selves."

Conversely Richmond, who thought their pre-season odds of 14-1 to win the Premiership were generous and irresistible, are finding that the space left by the return to Wales of Scott Quinnell is virtually unfillable. When John Kingston, the Richmond coach, signed Quinnell from Wigan on a five-year contract, it was on the understanding that he had cemented the cornerstone to his pack.

Best may think the Irish eight is a bit lightweight but compared with Richmond's it was of sumo proportions. "Without six of our first-choice pack I'm not sure what more the team could have done," Kingston said. Nothing.

Richmond defended tenaciously and considering that they did not see the ball for long periods it was a minor miracle that they managed to score two tries to one.

Wisely ignoring the modern craze for kicking for position instead of at goal, the Irish, on a foul day, kept putting points on the board through Jarrod Cunningham. The New Zealander kicked all six penalties and converted Rob Gallacher's try.

"Looking at it coldly you might say the difference between the sides was the goal-kicking," Kingston said. "But there was more to it than that." Deprived of their power forwards, Richmond have little strength in depth. Their annual wage bill is pounds 1.7m and they are reluctant to add to it. Scott Quinnell's transfer fee to Llanelli has not been touched.

Richmond: Tries Pichot, Pini; Penalty Va'a. London Irish: Try Gallacher; Conversion Cunningham; Penalties Cunningham 6.

Richmond: M Pini; N Walne, A Bateman (M Dixon, 77), J Wright, S Brown; E Va'a, A Pichot (capt); D McFarland, A Cuthbert, J Davies, B Cusack (A Codling, 57), C Gillies, M Swift (J Barfoot, 60), L Cabannes (G Powell, 76), R Hutton.

London Irish: C O'Shea (capt); J Bishop, N Burrows, B Venter, J Cunningham; S Bachop, K Putt (K Campbell, 64); N Hatley, M Howe (R Kirke, 51), K Fulman, K Spicer, M O'Kelly, J Boer, R Gallacher (I Feaunati, 69), K Dawson.

Referee: G Hughes (Manchester).