Armitages lead Irish into new territory

London Irish 42 Gloucester 12: Booth-inspired brothers ensure Exiles are Christmas No.1
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The Independent Online

Under different and less spectacularly mishandled circumstances, London Irish might have lost Toby Booth to England before they lost Brian Smith.

Last spring, Brian Ashton was giving serious consideration to recruiting the Exiles' coach in the national interest, just as he was thinking of adding the Gloucester skills specialist Denis Betts and the Northampton kicking technician Paul Grayson to the staff. But Ashton had already fallen foul of certain Rugby Football Union management board members, and as he found to his cost, those Heston Blumenthals of the dog's breakfast had other ideas.

How long will it be, then, before Booth is summoned to Twickenham to join his old mucker Smith in Martin Johnson's back-room team? He has no known links with Leicester, which leaves him at a considerable disadvantage in this age of the Old Tiger, but the quality of his work it club level is such that a smart punter might make a small financial investment in anticipation of him being involved in the World Cup campaign in New Zealand a little under three years from now.

This is not the first time London Irish have found themselves lording it at the top end of the Premiership. Dick Best, the acid-tongued former England coach known to his friends as “Sulphuric” (his enemies were less complimentary), put together a useful side towards the end of the 1990s, while Brendan Venter, who achieved the unimaginable by making Best appear sanguine, did likewise in the early years of present decade.

But Booth's team are the first to suggest they might actually belong up there. You can see it not only in the way they play, but in the way they celebrate their successes - not just the tries, which, as Gloucester discovered rather too often for comfort on Saturday, are marked with a wild collective jubilation, but the small victories at scrum, ruck and tackle that add up to something big.

In short, there is a togetherness about them - a genuine love of playing this hard game in each other's company - that says as much about the coach as it does about the captain Bob Casey or any other of the active participants. Technically precise (the Irish line-out has been the envy of the Premiership for a long time now) and tactically astute (his selection here was extremely clever), Booth also subscribes to the good-vibe theory of rugby, which is not always evident at successful clubs.

Jack Rowell's great Bath side of the mid-1980s opted for a “shame culture” approach, but they had international-class players coming out of their ears and could afford to upset a few of them. The Exiles have a small squad consisting largely of Test occasionals and brilliant academy talents, and must therefore be managed with sensitivity.

The energy they summoned at the Madejski Stadium blew Gloucester away. For all the sense they made of proceedings, the West Countrymen might have been second bottom of the league, not second top. Dean Ryan's side contributed to their own humiliation by kicking badly from first minute to last - they missed every hair on the head of the virally-challenged Olly Barkley, who failed to take the field - but even if they had put boot to ball with more intelligence, there is no guarantee they would have taken so much as a losing bonus point from the contest. At no stage was a try in the offing; indeed, it was not until the 48th minute that they launched a meaningful attack. Meanwhile, their hosts were tripping the light fantastic with some sharp, direct and inventive all-purpose rugby.

None were more direct than the Armitage brothers. Delon, the new England full-back, scored a belter of a try direct from one of Gloucester's many aimless punts, swivelling after gathering the ball and splitting the field with a long-legged glide before outstripping the covering Ryan Lamb to touch down in the left corner.

Not to be outdone, his kid brother Steffon, who would very much like to be England's new open-side flanker, covered a good 30 metres with a route-one stampede to set up a position from which Paul Hodgson, another eye-catching performer, slipped away from Alasdair Strokosch before finishing at the sticks.

If the elusive Delon moves like Courtney Walsh at the height of his rhythmic fast-bowling powers, the more substantial Steffon prowls around like Joe Frazier, dishing out and soaking up punishment in equal measure. Yet it was the latter who went the distance in characteristically rumbustious fashion, and while England are well blessed in the breakaway department, there is always room for another contender. Armitage minor is emerging as a major talent.

“How much did Delon's international call-up spur me on? Quite a lot, if I'm honest, because I wanted to get there before him,” he said after giving the out-of-position Strokosch a right royal seeing-to in the loose exchanges. “I've always looked up to my brother, actually, but please don't tell him that. Like Delon, I learned my rugby in France and played in a variety of positions - full-back, wing, centre, scrum-half. Unlike him, I was told I would never make it behind the scrum because I was the wrong shape, so I moved into the forwards.”

Since joining the Exiles from Saracens and falling under Booth's influence, he has lost weight, learned to control an aggressive streak that rivals his brother's - Mr and Mrs Armitage must have had all manner of fun with those two as they squabbled over the television remote - and extended his range of skills. “Steffon knows how many good No 7s there are around the England set-up, and he's in no hurry,” Booth remarked. It might have been the only thing the coach got wrong all afternoon.

Scorers: London Irish - Tries: D Armitage, Hodgson, Tagicakibau, Danaher. Conversions: Hewat 2. Penalties: Hewat 6. Gloucester - Penalties: Lamb 3, Walker.

London Irish: D Armitage (S Geraghty 65); T Ojo, E Seveali'i, S Mapusua, S Tagicakibau; P Hewat, P Hodgson (A Lalanne 79); C Dermody (D Murphy 76), D Paice (J Buckland 76), T Lea'aetoa (A Corbisiero 65), J Hudson (K Roche 55), R Casey (capt), R Thorpe (D Danaher 51), S Armitage, C Hala'ufia.

Gloucester: O Morgan (W Walker H-T); M Foster, M Watkins, M Tindall (capt), L Vainikolo; R Lamb (J Adams 57), G Cooper; N Wood (A Dickinson 65), S Lawson (O Azam H-T), G Somerville, M Bortolami (W James 54), A Brown, P Buxton (A Satala 42), A Strokosch, L Narraway.

Referee: S Davey (Sussex).