Rugby Union: Irish toast Australian contingent

Saracens 23 London Irish 28
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The Independent Online
THERE IS nothing remotely Irish about the London Irish personnel, if that does not sound too Irish, but their style of play is... well, pretty Irish.

London's new super-club, armed with only two men from the Emerald Isle and umpteen others from the far-flung corners of the southern hemisphere, spent most of yesterday's opening Premiership encounter at Vicarage Road without the ball, yet reduced the title favourites to the status of jibbering wrecks with the ferocity of their tackling and the depth of their commitment.

They also outscored Saracens by three tries to two and laughed their way back down the M25 with a nice brace of points in their collective back pocket."Wonders will never cease," smiled Dick Best, the Irish coach, after watching his amalgam of two famous Exiles clubs and the bankrupt rump of Richmond steal the spoils in the last two minutes of an absorbing, if technically incorrect, battle for supremacy in the sunshine.

"When we were 23-21 adrift and down to 14 men with 12 minutes left, I thought we would need something very special to pinch the game. Thankfully, we got it," he said.

And how. Always the stronger unit up front, the Saracens tight five shoved the Irish off their own ball at a 78th minute scrum, only to see the excellent Rob Gallacher rescue things at the base of his crumbling pack and release Mark Gabey on a thrilling rampage down the right wing.

As the big Australian ran out of space, he found a fellow outsized Antipodean, Nick Harvey, lummoxing up on his left shoulder, and once the ball went to hand it was a case of Thank You and Goodnight.

Best signed Gabey from Bristol during the summer, much to his own astonishment. "When we played Bristol in the cup last year, Mark was their best forward by a mile," he said. "I can't quite believe they let him go. He filled in for Jake Boer for more than half the game, and that says something for his ability."

Boer was turning in a pearl of a performance at the heart of the rough and tumble when he twanged his hamstring while executing a try-saving cover tackle on Rob Thirlby. Best might have been forgiven for thinking his side's chances had gone west along with the brick-hard flanker from Cape Town, but with Jarrod Cunningham both out-running and out-kicking Mark Mapletoft, his rival full-back - Mapletoft missed three stone-cold sitter penalty shots, two of them from inside the Irish 22 - the visitors packed just enough attacking menace to stay at the races.

When Rob Hunter, another powerful Irish loose forward, replaced Andrew Mower on 66 minutes, the visitors' physical presence looked as though it might be decisive. But Hunter was back in the dug-out in a trice, sin- binned for spearing Nick Walshe into the Hertfordshire greensward. It looked bleak for Best's men, but Mapletoft fluffed an opportunity to put Saracens five points clear and paid for his profligacy at the death.

Saracens: Tries Penalty try, Mapletoft; Conversions Mapletoft 2; Penalties Mapletoft 3. London Irish; Tries Cunningham, Kirke, Harvey; Conversions Cunningham 2; Penalties Cunningham 3.

Saracens: M Mapletoft; R Thirlby, R Constable (B Johnston, 70), K Sorrell, D O'Mahony; T Lacroix, N Walshe; D Flatman, G Chuter, J White, B Davison, K Chesney, B Cole (P Ogilvie, 62), A Diprose, F Pienaar (capt).

London Irish: J Cunningham; K Campbell, B Whetstone, M Rivaro (R Hoadley, 59), N Woods; J Brown, K Putt; N Hatley, R Kirke (M Howe, 79), K Fullman, R Strudwick (capt), N Harvey, J Boer (M Gabey, 37), R Gallacher, A Mower (R Hunter, 66).

Referee: B Campsall (Halifax).