Armitage's try helps get Irish into top gear

London Irish 42 Gloucester 12: England full-back injured but not before showing why Booth's expansive Exiles are leading the way
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The Independent Online

Not quite all London Irish's dreams came true, as their flying full-back Delon Armitage limped off in the first half and had his left foot encased in a protective brace, but it was pretty close. The percussive beat in the grandstands – it's like the Edinburgh Tattoo here, with a dozen drummers when one or two would do – began by marking time with each side kicking to the other but it quickly turned into a victory march for the Exiles. With four tries, some thrilling rugby, a 10th win on the bounce and whatever the Gaelic is for joie de vivre they stayed on top of the Guinness Premiership table.

You would only have been sure this was first against second at start of play by checking the table in the programme. Gloucester surrendered their own sequence of seven successive wins, and though a bug had been in their squad all week – Olly Barkley was unfit to start, and Olly Morgan retired sick at half-time – their head coach, Dean Ryan, did not make it an excuse. The tactic of their backs kicking infield to avoid Irish's renowned line-out was sensible in isolation. But Irish's kicking was superior, their counter-attack was devastating and when those twin truths were made evident by two coruscating tries in the opening half-hour, Gloucester had little in the way of a Plan B.

The legacy of Irish's former head coach Brian Smith – now with England – lingers, but credit is bound to be paid to the current attack coach, Mike Catt, and his belief in swift movement of the ball. If there's a couple of metres on offer, man on man, take it. If it takes a long pass instead, fling it. "We're fuelling ambition, to throw the ball around, and to be honest we don't know any other way to play," said the head coach, Toby Booth. "We've fallen foul of it before and when you're winning it's easier to sell ideas but the key difference is our decision-making has become more accurate."

Irish went 6-0 up through two penalties by Peter Hewat, the Australian fly-half who is ordinarily a full-back. One of the joys of the season has been the flourishing of Armitage with his club and England. The 25-year-old knows no fear. A clearing kick by Mark Foster dropped near halfway and Armitage collected it, swivelled and set off. He raced on a lovely arc outside Ryan Lamb and down the left and Lesley Vainikolo was unable to bring off a saving tackle.

The shame was that Armitage limped off soon after, waylaid by a ligament injury sustained the previous week, but the adjustment was minimal, with Hewat dropping back and Shane Geraghty on at fly-half. Lamb kicked three penalties but Irish kept scoring in between. After 27 minutes, a box kick by Gareth Cooper merely invited Sailosi Tagicakibau and Steffon Armitage – Delon's brother – to run it back and the scrum-half Paul Hodgson knifed through at the posts. Hewat converted and his 35th-minute penalty following a scrum collapse – Gloucester's All Black prop, Greg Somerville, had a mixed first start – contributed to a 21-9 interval lead.

Irish's Pacific Islander centres, Elvis Seveali'i and Seilala Mapusua, made like projectile missiles and pushed an elastic offside line. Gloucester got to within nine points with a penalty by Willie Walker but though Irish had kept Gloucester ticking and Lamb and Walker kicking by going off their feet at the tackle, it was not decisive.

Hewat's penalties after 64 and 68 minutes took him to 20 points and then at least three Gloucester tacklers laid hands on Tagicakibau, only for the Samoan to see them all off. In the final minute Declan Danaher sprinted 45 metres for the bonus point. Hewat converted. The statisticians tell us the Premiership's top sides are more closely matched year by year, but right now the Irish, who have never won the league, are first among equals.

London Irish: D Armitage (S Geraghty, 24); T Ojo, E Seveali'i, S Tagicakibau; P Hewat, P Hodgson (A Lalanne, 78); C Dermody, D Paice (J Buckland, 75), T Lea'aetoa (A Corbisiero, 64), J Hudson (K Roche, 54), B Casey (capt), R Thorpe, C Hala'Ufia, S Armitage (D Danaher, 51).

Gloucester: O Morgan (W Walker, 40); M Foster, M Watkins, M Tindall (capt), L Vainikolo; R Lamb (J Adams, 55), G Cooper; N Wood, S Lawson (O Azam, 40), G Somerville (A Dickinson, 64), M Bortolami (W James, 54), A Brown, P Buxton (A Satala, 40), L Narraway, A Strokosch.

Referee: S Davey (Sussex).

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