Exiles' injury toll mounts as high price is paid for superb victory

London Irish 23 Munster 17
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Come the back end of January, the 21,000 punters who parted with their hard-earned cash to witness this emerald-tinged affirmation of all that is best in Heineken Cup rugby – and left the Madejski Stadium declaring they would have paid double for the privilege – will know which, if any, of the key moments unlocked the door to the quarter-finals.

The goal-line stand by London Irish early in the final quarter, perhaps? If Delon Armitage and Alex Corbisiero never tackle anyone again, the Richter scale hits they inflicted on Tony Buckley and Denis Leamy will guarantee them a place in the great defensive formation in the sky. Or maybe it will be the Ronan O'Gara-Sam Tuitupou intervention in the seventh minute of injury time that rescued a losing bonus point for the men of Limerick.

Toby Booth, the Exiles' head coach, would much prefer it to be the first, but in truth, he has better things to think about right now.

The first, and most pressing, is a chronic shortage of options on the open-side flank that threatens to undo London Irish's good work at the weekend. Declan Danaher's knee injury casts serious doubt on his participation against Ospreys in Swansea on Friday night, and with three of his fellow back-rowers – Steffon Armitage, Richard Thorpe and James Gibson – also on the sick list, there is a high risk that the 2008 semi-finalists will be forced to field a makeshift, wholly unbalanced combination against Jerry Collins, Marty Holah and company.

Secondly, Booth will spend a few quiet moments trying to understand the decision of the England selectors to relegate Paul Hodgson, the London Irish scrum-half, to the second-string Saxons squad. Hodgson delivered one of his "heartbeat performances" on Saturday night, prodding and poking, coaxing and cajoling, instigating and inventing. If his scrum-half skills and game-management instincts were bang on the money, his courage was every bit as inspiring.

Tuitupou, no one's idea of pacifist, dumped the poor little blighter on his head at one point – an assault that succeeded only in ramping up the half-back even more. Towards the end, Hodgson wrestled the hulking James Coughlan into touch and earned himself a smack on the bonce from Donncha O'Callaghan, who had been waiting all evening to catch up with him. His response? From a prone position, he reached out a defiant hand and tripped the Lions lock from behind. O'Callaghan looked like Bambi. Hodgson looked like a hero.

"Not good enough for England, then." So said Booth with a look of utter bemusement on his face. The coach is no fool: he understands that the half-backs in the elite party for the forthcoming internationals, Ben Youngs and Danny Care, are faster and more dynamic runners than his player ever was, or will ever be. But if the Test side had anything resembling a half-decent attacking game in midfield, Hodgson's craftsmanship might be accommodated. Of course, this is not the case. More's the pity.

In the immediate aftermath of the game, much was made of the significance of Tuitupou's extra-late score, the result of a dainty running kick from O'Gara that was not far short of sublime. Yet if it was true that the Exiles could have done without it, Booth flatly refused to allow one isolated incidence of gatecrashing to spoil his party.

"I'm more interested in championing the things my side achieved," he said. "When you see Delon stop a man the size of Buckley, who must have had a 50kg advantage, that close to the line, you know people care about what they do. That's important to us. It's also important that we play with our heads as well as our hearts, as we did out there. Sometimes, a coach gets one without the other."

Primarily, London Irish accumulated their points through the boot of the excellent Ryan Lamb, although Topsy Ojo's interception try a few seconds after the interval and Armitage's 55-metre master-blaster penalty deep in the final quarter were equally valuable.

It is far too early to say how this European campaign will unfold for the Exiles, but if they can paper over the cracks in the back-row department and keep Hodgson on the boil, they will at least be competitive at the Liberty Stadium in a few days' time.

London Irish: Try Ojo; Penalties Lamb 4, Armitage; Drop goal Lamb. Munster: Try Tuitupou; Penalties O'Gara 4.

London Irish D Armitage; T Ojo, E Seveali'i (D Bowden, 75), S Mapusua, S Tagicakibau (J Joseph, 75); R Lamb, P Hodgson; C Dermody (capt), J Buckland (D Paice, 57), F Rautenbach (A Corbisiero, 57), N Kennedy, R Casey (M Garvey, 75), K Roche, D Danaher (C Hala'ufia, 52), G Stowers.

Munster J Murphy; D Howlett, K Earls (P Warwick, 75), S Tuitupou, D Hurley; R O'Gara, P Stringer (D Williams, 79); W Du Preez (M Horan, 69), D Varley (M Sherry 85), A Buckley (J Hayes, 69), D O'Callaghan, D Ryan (M O'Driscoll, 59), D Leamy (capt), N Ronan (D

Wallace, 35), J Coughlan.

Referee C Berdos (France).