Irish fight back but fail to land knockout blow

Bath 20 London Irish 20
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The Independent Online

Like a pair of thrashing middleweight sluggers who make an unspoken pact that each will give their best shot and see who comes out the winner, the two Premiership teams most devoted to a running game fought each other to a drawn standstill. Bath led on points, 17 of them by half-time, but Irish parried and jabbed and countered to prove their right to vie with their hosts in the upper echelons of the table.

Irish had lost their previous three Premiership matches to Harlequins, Gloucester and Sale – all close rivals in the chase for the play-offs – and lined up without Australian anchorman Peter Hewat, waylaid by knee ligament damage. Bath’s brutal targeting of Hewat’s stand-in at full-back, the England under-20 cap Tom Homer, led to two of their three first-half tries.

For a long while it looked as if the visitors’ previously impressive defence would be thoroughly shredded. Throw in a considerable gain by Bath on the Irish line-out throw – four were lost and another knocked on, with their expert Nick Kennedy absent on England duty – and the final result looked improbable.

Initially Irish floundered when Topsy Ojo in the back three appeared to kick anything which came his way wherever he was on the field. Ultimately though it was Ojo who danced past three Bath defenders for a thrilling try with 15 minutes remaining which Shane Geraghty converted to tie the scores. Geraghty’s missed conversion from presentable range after the second of three Irish tries appeared costly, but with such adventurism on show the motto mea culpa could have been embroidered underneath each club’s badge. “The players went away from working together,” bemoaned Steve Meehan, the Bath head coach. “We were disappointed with the second half.”

Bath’s try-scoring potency was demonstrated after 11, 21 and 30 minutes: simultaneously multi-faceted and monotonous. Butch James’s up-and-unders were not exactly all Greek to Homer, but he lost the first one aimed at him, Justin Harrison snaffled the ball for Bath, and it went to the left via James, Dave Flatman and Matt Banahan before Stuart Hooper, the second row, bundled over at the corner.

Homer then caught another James bomb at the second attempt but to no avail as Bath poured through, turned the youngster over and after Flatman crashed through the line and offloaded to Hooper, a batted-on overhead pass by Alex Crockett put Banahan over for his sixth try of the season.

Bath went in again when Ojo’s horridly hurried kick and Chris Hala’ufia’s fumble prompted a counter-attack inititiated by Crockett in which Maddock exchanged passes with Banahan – who almost strolled past Irish’s tighthead Alex Corbisiero – to make it 15-0, and James added his first successful conversion.

There was too much ebb and flow in the second period to call it the classic match of two halves, yet Irish, after Geraghty missed touch with a penalty to give them a rotten start, got a foothold with their first try after 46 minutes. Elvis Seveali’i and Seilala Mapusua were engagingly positive throughout. When Seveali’i, who as a Bath player in 2003 scored a famous winning try against London Irish to stave off relegation, fed James Buckland they set up Adam Thompstone, at high pace, to run in from the halfway line.

It was a closer-run thing when Ojo appeared to be tackled without the ball by Banahan and spared Bath briefly. Then Geraghty – who, according to Booth, has activated a clause to renegotiate his contract, possibly with a transfer to follow – kicked a penalty for Duncan Bell boring in at a scrum. A two-handed line-out take by Bob Casey and an unwitting blocking move by Chris White, the referee, saw Mapusua pop through a gap like a cork form a champagne bottle, and the centre scored near the posts.

Ojo veered past Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu, the replacement Nick Abendanon and James for his try, from Richard Thorpe’s pass.

“We were probably too passive to begin with, and I take responsibility because we have been getting punished by referees and I wanted to keep the penalty count down,” said Toby Booth, London Irish’s chief coach.

There was enough dog left in both sides to prevent any dropped-goal chances, and two points each neither lifted them nor worsened their place in the league standings.

Bath: J Maddock; A Higgins (N Abendanon, 62), A Crockett (capt), E Fuimaono-Sapolu (S Berne, 67), M Banahan; B James, M Claassens (S Bemand, 74); D Flatman (A Jarvis, 55), P Dixon (R Hawkins, 67), D Bell, J Harrison, S Hooper (P Short, 62), A Beattie, D Browne (J Scaysbrook, 64), J Faamatuainu.

London Irish: T Homer; T Ojo, E Seveali’i, S Mapusua, A Thompstone; S Geraghty, P Hodgson; C Dermody (Corbisiero, 80), J Buckland (D Coetzee, 55) A Corbisiero (T Lea’aetoa, 47), J Hudson, B Casey (capt, G Johnson, 77), R Thorpe, C Hala’ufia (D Danaher, 47), S Armitage.

Referee: C White (Cheltenham).