Jones the boot puts Scarlets in the pink

London Irish 25 Scarlets 27: Late penalty gives Welsh side victory in game of five tries and high drama
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Stephen Jones has teed up a few decisive kicks in his time, some successful and others not – the heart-aching near miss for Wales which allowed Ireland a Grand Slam in Cardiff a few months ago springs to mind in the latter category, whereas his boot often kept the Lions in contention on tour in the summer.

But the venerable Scarlet, with more than 2,500 points to his name, man and boy, for club and region, was not about to miss from 15 metres out with London Irish at his mercy and two minutes left on the clock. So Irish, who had won away to the holders, Leinster, in the opening round of the Heineken Cup a week earlier, were beaten on home ground by their Welsh visitors, who are sitting pretty, if a trifle breathless, on top of Pool Six with two wins out of two.

It would be a mistake to ask where it all went wrong for Irish. The team currently second in the Guinness Premiership got a lot right. But so did the Scarlets, and in a thrilling match of five tries Jones's fourth and fifth penalties edged it after Sailosi Tagicakibau's runaway score for Irish after 66 minutes had appeared to be the crucial contribution. Toby Booth, Irish's head coach, accepted the result with good grace.

"What looked on paper to be an attacking contest proved to be just that," he said. "But we made too many errors and it would have been theft if we had won."

The Scarlets relied on rucking hard and often. Sometimes Irish got away with not over-committing themselves, and kept their big tacklers, Seilala Mapusua and Chris Hala'Ufia, to knock Welshmen down wide out. On other occasions Irish conceded penalties at the breakdown and Jones the boot punished them. Mark Jones, the Scarlets' captain on the wing, was a central figure too, attacking with clever panache. Just as he had done three seasons ago when Scarlets won here on the way to the semi-finals. Irish were in the final four two seasons ago. When these two sides get together there tends to be high excitement.

This one hinged in the last knockings on Irish's Peter Richards conceding a penalty by picking up a ball in his 22 when he was marginally offside in front of his fly-half, Ryan Lamb, who had slid in to tidy up a hack through.

"The media barely mentioned us before the Heineken Cup started and I used that as motivation," said Nigel Davies, Booth's Scarlets counterpart. Everyone in Europe will pay more attention now. Not only to the Jones boys but to the vivacious backs Daniel Evans and Jonathan Davies – both capped by Wales in the summer – and the human battering-ram Matthew Rees, another Lion. The former Wallaby No 8 David Lyons was also outstanding, breaking off the scrum.

Each side had two tries in the first half, which ended at 18-18. For Irish's opener, after six minutes, Mapusua pirouetted over the gain line and Hala'Ufia delayed his pass nicely before sending Declan Danaher crashing past Lee Williams. The latter's weak tackle augured poorly for the Scarlets but they were soon to give as good as they got, and the rat-a-tat nature of it all was enhanced by each of the remaining tries before the interval coming in the first play after a previous score.

Lamb's beauty of a drop goal from the 10-metre line had Irish 8-0 up, then Evans, from full-back, caught his own chip and skated around Peter Hewat for a try in rapid response. Stephen Jones converted, Lamb struck a penalty and Irish led 11-7 after 16 minutes. Lamb missed with a kick from his own half, Stephen Jones landed a penalty then Elvis Seveali'i snaffled a deft punt through by Mapusua which bounced from the reach of Hewat and Williams alike. Lamb converted for 18-10. The kick-off was fumbled by Irish and Rees's drive into midfield allowed Stephen Jones and Davies to feed Mark Jones, who chipped and skipped his way to the corner. A classy effort.

Irish had flanker Steffon Armitage absent resting under the elite player agreement but they were cleared by the England management to field Paul Hodgson. The scrum-half who is vying with Harlequins' Danny Care for a spot against Australia on 7 November was for once unable to get a grip on proceedings. A high tackle on Tom Homer by Martin Roberts gave Lamb a 30-metre shot at the posts which went wide. Then Homer went to the sin-bin for upending Mark Jones. That gave the Scarlets a great attacking position in the Irish 22 – penalty to touch; free-kick for closing the gap – but though Lyons handed off his opposite number, Hala'Ufia, Irish scrambled brilliantly and forced a penalty for holding on.

Stephen Jones's second penalty tied the scores at 18-18 and his third went over eight minutes into the second half to give his side the lead for the first time. Lyons galloped from a scrum to relieve some pressure before Tagicakibau raced in from 80 metres with an interception and Lamb converted for 25-21. Still the Scarlets kept coming, and in the 72nd minute Irish went off their feet: 25-24. Poor Richards' momentary lapse did the rest – that, plus a final swing of Stephen Jones's famous right foot.

London Irish P Hewat; T Homer, E Seveali'i (P Richards, 58), S Mapusua, S Tagicakibau; R Lamb, P Hodgson; D Murphy, D Paice (D Coetzee, 53), F Rautenbach (P Ion, 53), N Kennedy, B Casey (capt; A Perry, 58), D Danaher, C Hala'Ufia, G Stowers.

Scarlets D Evans; L Williams, S Lamont, J Davies (R Higgitt, 58), M Jones (capt); S Jones, M Roberts; I Thomas, M Rees (K Owens, 60), D Manu, L Reed (V Cooper, 60), D Day, S Easterby (R Pugh, 60), D Lyons, D Jones.

Referee: P Fitzgibbon (Ireland).