Rugby Union: Irish reward Best's hard work

London Irish 26 Rotherham 14
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The Independent Online
LONDON IRISH managed to avoid the fate of two other famous clubs, Bristol and Newport, but a measure of Rotherham's resistance is that the Exiles had to make an optimum effort to survive in the Premiership.

Irish power and experience have finally told after two exceptionally hard games against the Second Division club. The luck of the Irish was evident in the first leg of the Premiership One play-off on Wednesday evening when they emerged with a 16-13 advantage after being on the back foot of most of the game.

In an attempt to rally the Exiles, if not shame them, the coach, Dick Best, forced the team to watch a video of the match. "If I've got to watch this crap," Best told them, "then so have you."

Yesterday the former England coach tried to give the impression of being the coolest man at Sunbury but he wasn't fooling anybody. The prospect of failure, which would have been so disastrous for the club and its investors, did not bare thinking about. Best, who is due to sign a contract at the end of the month, was dragging on cigarettes like an expectant father. "We had everything to lose,"Best admitted. "They had everything to gain. It was a very difficult environment. You're frightened to take chances and risks because you're playing for your job."

Rotherham tackled like men possessed and a measure of the magnificence of their defence is that they outscored the Irish by two tries to one yesterday, 3-2 over the two legs. Very little went right for the Yorkshire club, who have been promoted through the leagues seven times in 11 years, and they were kicked out of it by Niall Woods. With the referee, Ed Morrison, particularly severe on Rotherham, Woods landed seven penalties.

With Niall Hogan having a nightmare, the Irish were indebted not just to Woods but to their outstanding Western Samoan No 8 Isaac Feaunati, until he was carried off with damaged knee ligaments, and their lock Malcolm O'Kelly.

After Woods had kicked two early penalties, Rotherham went ahead in the 29th minute when Dean Lax, the man who dropped the ball over the Irish line in the first leg, rounded off a splendid move. The Rotherham scrum- half, who is Irish, outplayed Hogan and was inches short of scoring a spectacular solo try.

Rotherham led 7-6 but two more Woods penalties gave the Irish a 12-7 advantage at halftime. They managed to breach a Rotherham defence that appeared to be made of steel when Justin Bishop capitalised on a long pass from David Humphreys. Even so Rotherham added another try, beautifully taken by Greg Austin.

John Phillips, a New Zealander who has been working as a coaching consultant with Rotherham, said: "The club has made unbelievable progress and I'm really proud of what they've achieved. It didn't help us that we didn't know we'd be in a playoff until the last minute. We had spent four weeks without a game and it was a ludicrous situation."

Willie Anderson, Best's predecessor who left the club in February, is still making his presence felt. Humphreys and Mark McCall, both Irish internationals, played their last game for the Exiles and are expected to join Dungannon, Anderson's new club.

London Irish: Try Bishop; Penalties Woods 7. Rotherham: Tries Lax, Austin. Conversions Binns 2.

London Irish: C O'Shea (capt); J Bishop, B Venter (S Burns, 70), M McCall, N Woods; D Humphreys, N Hogan; J Fitzpatrick, R Kellam (T Redmond, 37), G Halpin (L Mooney, 77), N Harvey, M O'Kelly, K Spicer, I Feaunati (C Bird, 74), K Dawson.

Rotherham: M Umaga, M Dawson, G Austin, J Shepherd (A Buzza, 62), D Lax; S Binns, G Easterby; S Bunting, R Wareham, J Ashley (S Wilson, 55), J Dudley (D Cook, 77), G Webster, B Wade, M Schmid (capt), N Spence.

Referee: E Morrison (Bristol).

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