London Irish had nothing to play for in the Heineken Cup yesterday, but as there is more to life than the Heineken Cup – reputation, self-respect, contracts and careers spring to mind, among other things – the idea that they would adopt a horizontal position from the start and accept a thorough seeing-to, from a team whose European campaign was still a going concern, always seemed a little far-fetched.
After a 10-match losing streak stretching back to October, the Exiles duly rediscovered the best of themselves to beat the Welsh glitterati with something to spare, handing Pool Three's automatic quarter-final place to Toulon in the process.
They scored the game's only tries – the left-wing Sailosi Tagicakibau crossed in the first half after brilliant work from Delon Armitage; the unfeasibly quick Topsy Ojo did likewise at the start of the second following a clean midfield break from Daniel Bowden – and they won the big-hit tackling contest hands down.
But as Toby Booth, their director of rugby, emphasised afterwards, this was primarily a triumph for a remodelled tight-forward unit, featuring two academy products in Alex Corbisiero – who looks for all the world like an England loose-head prop in waiting – and Matt Garvey, a young second-rower who has had the brass neck to dump Bob Casey, a London Irish folk hero if ever there was one, on the bench.
Booth waxed lyrical about the "innocence of youth" – not that Corbisiero appeared either pure or gullible as he set about dealing with the world's best tight-head operator, Adam Jones, in the darkened recesses of the scrum. The uncapped 22-year-old won penalties off his elder and better at the set-piece, carried the ball like Andrew Sheridan on heat and posted the kind of tackle count once associated with Phil Vickery, who famously set new standards in the field. What was more, he energised those around him.
According to his boss, hard-won experience is not necessarily all it's cracked up to be when a team are in extremis. "It can manifest itself in cynicism," he explained. "Sometimes, it's better to have people who just go for it. When you're a young man, sitting on a bike with no brakes at the top of a hill, you don't care. That's the attitude people like Alex and Matt have given us in recent weeks. They epitomise what we're about, and what we need to be about going forward."
Quite what Ospreys are about is one of the mysteries of the age. Seven days previously, after seeing his side lose at Saracens in a tight Premiership contest, Booth had lamented the lack of breathing space as he headed into European games with Ospreys and Munster. "It doesn't get any easier: we're playing Wales, then we're playing Ireland," he remarked. It was not strictly accurate, but you could see his point.
Yesterday, Ospreys arrived at the Madejski Stadium with three-fifths of the tight unit that will take on England in Cardiff in the opening match of the Six Nations, plus Jonathan Thomas, who is favourite to start at No 8. Outside the pack, there were Mike Phillips, a stone-cold certainty for the scrum-half position, and James Hook, who will start at centre. Oh yes, almost forgot. The flankers, Jerry Collins and Marty Holah, were fully-fledged All Blacks. Yet, once again, Welsh rugby's top-of-the-range regional outfit amounted to far less than the sum of their parts.
They started with a gallop towards the London Irish line – Alun-Wyn Jones, Dan Biggar, Richard Hibbard and Holah combined threateningly to give Phillips a shot at a five-pointer, only to see the outstanding Chris Hala'ufia snuff out the danger – and established a number of decent attacking platforms thereafter. The return? Four miserable penalties. For a side with a cutting edge to die for, they were about as sharp as a wet halibut.
"London Irish were determined, desperate, ferocious," acknowledged Sean Holley, their head coach, "but we were within two or three metres of their line on five or six occasions, which says it all. We're not sufficiently clinical when we get into the red zone." Alun-Wyn Jones was a touch more blunt, confessing to problems with decision-making that had, to use his own colourful phrase, become a "bullshit trend".
He could say that again, and probably will. Midway through the final quarter, the Exiles lost their hooker, James Buckland, to the sin bin after the referee, George Clancy, spotted him contesting a little too vigorously for a little too long at a ruck beneath the London Irish sticks. Nine points adrift and in dire need of a converted try, Ospreys called for the scrum, understandably fancying their chances of a pushover against a seven-man pack. What happened? The back-rowers ran left off the back of the set-piece before the second shove was set in motion. As bum decisions went, this was right up there with the Lloyds' takeover of HBOS.
Requiring victory to set up a winner-take-all rumble with Toulon in Swansea this coming weekend, the visitors would not have a better chance – or, indeed, another chance of any description. The last word went to Ryan Lamb, who, after replacing the excellent Bowden at outside-half, banged over a savagely difficult left-sided penalty to extend his side's lead to a dozen points. It was a neat contribution from a man routinely accused of not knowing how to close out a game.
By way of rounding off a rough day for the Welsh rugby nation, Holley reported that Adam Jones, so crucial in the Six Nations context, had suffered strained ligaments in his left elbow – an injury that prevented him retaking the field after the interval. Corbisiero will not see this as a triumph: there is honour among props, just as there is among thieves. The England management will see it differently, however. The game at the Millennium Stadium on 4 February is so important to both countries, honour is the last thing on their minds.
London Irish: Tries Tagicakibau, Ojo; Conversion Bowden; Penalties Bowden (3), Lamb.
Ospreys: Penalties Biggar (3), Hook.
London Irish: D Armitage; T Ojo, E Seveali'i, S Mapusua (capt), S Tagicakibau (A Thompstone, 85); D Bowden (R Lamb, 78), D Allinson; A Corbisiero (D Murphy, 72), J Buckland, F Rautenbach (P Ion, 52), N Kennedy, M Garvey, G Stowers (J Gibson, 72), S Armitage (B Baney, 75), C Hala'ufia.
Ospreys: B Davies (L Byrne, 52); N Walker, T Bowe, J Hook, R Fussell; D Biggar (S Parker, 61), M Phillips (J Nutbrown, 81); P James (D Jones, 61), R Hibbard (H Bennett, 61), A Jones (C Mitchell, h-t), R Jones, A W Jones (capt), J Collins, M Holah (J Tipuric, 49), J Thomas.
Referee: G Clancy (Ireland).Reuse content