Saracens suffer first defeat as Irish click

London Irish 23 Saracens 19
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The Independent Online

A seasonal ding-dong of the not-so-merry variety had been on the cards since Saracens strung together eight consecutive victories as a means of establishing their credentials as serious contenders for the Guinness Premiership title they could, perhaps should, have won 11 years ago. The men from Hertfordshire – now known by some as the Home Counties Free State, owing to the number of South Africans currently involved in plotting a realignment of English club rugby from their base in Watford – are still at the top of the log, but yesterday's events a few dozen miles to the west have opened things up nicely.

London Irish, who also have their fair share of imported talent, played these 80 minutes as though their lives depended on it and emerged victorious because they won the last 30 of them hands-down. They scrummaged more strongly, kicked more intelligently – "That's the beauty of having a trio of full-backs in your back three," said their coach, Toby Booth – and were clearly superior in what might euphemistically be called the dark arts. Bob Casey, the proud holder of a master's degree in banditry, was at his best while Delon Armitage reminded everyone of his limitless capacity for argument. The man could start a row with his own shaving mirror.

"The reason we lost," pronounced Saracens director of rugby Brendan Venter, who once coached London Irish and knows them inside-out, "was down to our lack of composure. We let that side of our game slip by getting sucked into all the pushing and shoving. We knew it would happen, but we allowed ourselves to become involved. As I've just told the players in the dressing room, we'll be better for this experience. Why? Because it will teach us not to do some of the things we did out there."

There was an old-fashioned, thoroughly entertaining fractiousness about this contest as it unfolded before an audience of 20,000, give or take a few. If the Exiles had Casey and Armitage in full war-paint, Saracens possessed the highly impressive Springbok flanker Wikus van Heerden, whose differences of opinion with the home side's line-out specialist Nick Kennedy were legion. The more grippingly claustrophobic the game grew, the more heated the protagonists became. Both sides were guilty of transgressions, but as Venter rightly suggested, it was London Irish who benefited most from the outpourings of snarl and strop.

Mind you, Saracens did not do themselves any favours defensively, and their unexpected frailty in that department had nothing to do with the Exiles winding them up and messing them around at ruck and maul. Both London Irish tries were of the "giveaway" variety, although the Pacific Islanders who scored them – Chris Hala'ufia of Tonga midway through the first quarter, Elvis Seveali'i of Samoa late in the last – performed their deeds in time-honoured South Seas style. Venter was suitably unimpressed, describing try number one as "soft" and try number two as "stupid".

Yet even by the time Hala'ufia capitalised on the missed tackle that gave Peter Hewat a free run into the Saracens 22, the home side were chasing the scoreboard. Alex Goode, one of several striking young English talents lovingly nurtured by those running the visitors' excellent academy, cut the decibel level of the crowd by propelling a drop goal through the sticks from the best part of 50 metres, and when Hugh Vyvyan blocked an attempted in-goal clearance from Alfredo Lalanne, there were rich pickings for the flanker Justin Melck, who touched down to give his side a 10-point advantage.

London Irish were back in the hunt quickly enough but for every penalty opportunity that fell the way of Chris Malone, the Saracens outside-half Glen Jackson was presented with one of his own, and for much of the middle 40 minutes, Jackson looked the more bankable of the marksmen. There was a successful kick from 45 metres, followed by a wide-angled shot that would have tested the very best in the business, Messrs Carter and Wilkinson included. When the New Zealander landed another fearfully awkward shot from the right on 50 minutes, the suspicion that Saracens were doing enough grew significantly.

Step forward Malone, a much-travelled Australian whose rather diffident air guarantees him as many critics as he has supporters. Having missed two relatively comfortable kicks either side of the interval, he brought his side back to within three points after Schalk Brits was penalised for a deliberate knock-down. (The South African hooker claimed his act was a legitimate attempt at an interception, but the one-handedness of the effort gave him away).

Then, eight minutes from time, Armitage and Seilala Mapusua launched a bold attack from their own 22, and when Mapusua's carefully judged kick ahead forced Kameli Ratuvou to side-foot the ball into touch, the Exiles had a prime attacking platform in the shape of a line-out five metres from the Saracens line. George Stowers delivered the possession, and with both Malone and Hewat handily placed for drops at goal, an equalising three-pointer appeared to be favourite. Instead, Malone took Lalanne's pass on the move, ran left and fed Seveali'i, who bounced his way through Van Heerden and Ernst Joubert to claim the deciding score, duly converted by the man most responsible for making it possible.

"It doesn't matter who you are or what you're reputation might be," said Booth, who has preferred Malone to Ryan Lamb for some weeks. "If you take your opportunity and play well, you stay in the team. Chris was given a chance and he's making the most of it." With hot competition for places at No 10 and Armitage back in the thick of it after injury – he and brother Steffon have agreed new two-year deals, with their young sibling Guy poised to join the academy next season – London Irish are in a good position to follow Malone's example.

Scorers: London Irish: Tries Hala'ufia, Seveali'i; Conversions Malone (2); Penalties Malone (3). Saracens: Try Melck; Conversion Jackson; Penalties Jackson (3); Drop goal Goode.

London Irish: D Armitage; T Homer, E Seveali'i, S Mapusua (M Catt, 78), P Hewat; C Malone, A Lalanne; C Dermody (D Murphy, 74), D Paice (D Coetzee, 78), P Ion (F Rautenbach, 65), N Kennedy, R Casey (capt, K Roche, 50-53), R Thorpe (G Stowers, 37-H-T, Roche, 60), S Armitage, C Hala'ufia (Stowers, 60) .

Saracens: A Goode; R Penney (R Haughton, 74), K Ratuvou, B Barritt, C Wyles; G Jackson, J Marshall; M Aguero (R Gill, H-T), F Ongaro (S Brits, 44), R Skuse (C Nieto, 29), S Borthwick (capt), H Vyvyan (M Botha, 47), W Van Heerden, J Melck (A Saull, 51), E Joubert.

Referee: D Richards (Berkshire).

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