Scarlets turn the tables in style as Irish gamble their lead away

Scarlets 31 London Irish 22
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The Independent Online

In terms of blowing it London Irish resembled that man in an old Volkswagen advert who falls out of a casino with his bow tie undone having lost all his money. They gambled it all yesterday and it came up red. In fact, it came up Scarlet.

With 15 minutes to go, the Exiles were 12 points to the good and seemingly on the way to the Heineken Cup quarter-finals. There was still the little matter of who would top the group and their focus criminally turned to next Saturday's Twickenham showdown with the defending champions.

A bonus-point win would put them level with Leinster. What's more the maximum return would have taken them to 20 points, which would basically assure them of at least one of two runner-up placings that go through to the knockout stages. So with the game obviously won, they went for it. The trouble is the game wasn't yet won. And the identity of their opponents should have rang an alarm bell.

"Déjà vu," said the London Irish coach, Toby Booth, thinking back to the Scarlets' 27-25 victory at the Madejski Stadium back in October. On that occasion Stephen Jones landed the late penalty to not so much upset the odds as leave them utterly mortified. Jones wasn't fit enough to play yesterday but that did not stop the young Scarlets launching their remarkable comeback.

In an surreal final quarter, the home side ran in three converted tries. So instead of a five-pointer, London Irish left without so much as a bonus point and that could yet prove more calamitous than anything about this capitulation. Now they need to not only beat Leinster to head the group but to also win a bonus point and at the same time deny Brian O'Driscoll anything in defeat. And that is on the audacious side of unlikely; regardless of Irish's win at the Royal Dublin Showground on the first weekend of the tournament.

It was a scenario Booth was trying to come top terms with yesterday. "We knew it would be tough here, we knew the Scarlets would be passionate, but I do feel that a lot of what went on today was our own doing," he said. "At 22-10 up we expected to close it out."

The chances are they would have closed it out if they had elected to go for the posts and not for the corner in the 59th minute. That would have taken them 15 points up, and being more than two scores down the Scarlets might very well have lacked the incentive to turn all Harry Houdini. Booth was not about to rollock his side for that gung-ho nonsense, although he did say: "you live by the decisions you make and maybe they'll learn from that." "But we had had glorious opportunities to put that game to bed," he added. "And we didn't take them."

The minutes when they should have capitalised came at the end of the second half when Lou Reed took a spectacularly stupid walk on the wild side that earned him a yellow card. The Scarlets lock tripped up Paul Hodgson in front of the referee and, with the visitors were 12-5 up, it looked ominous for the West Walians. Jonathan Davies had given a taster of their attacking threat when cancelling out Tom Homer's early try, although Irish were very much in the ascendancy.

But they failed to make much out of their numerical supremacy; a Ryan Lamb penalty was soon negated by one from Rhys Priestland. Their profligacy didn't appear to matter when Chris Hala'ufia charged over following a Scarlet botch-up when trying to cover Peter Hewat's high-ball.

But then the momentum switched dramatically. Rob McCusker was the hero of the resurgence, scoring two tries in four minutes. The first came with a fine turn of pace for a blindside and the second came courtesy of a Deacon Manu drive. Irish could only look on in disbelief as Priestland converted from wide out to make it 24-22.

There was still time to rescue the situation but they were palpably not up to it. It was now the Scarlets thinking of the bonus point and in the last seconds so it came. Davies waltzed over for his second and Irish's misery was complete. At the very least, they must beat Leinster again to stand a chance of qualification, while the Scarlets will go to a pointless Brive fancying that another bonus-point win will leapfrog them not only into second place but also into the Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-finals. Saying that, the Heineken quarter-finals remain a mathematical possibility. After this Lazarus act nothing should be deemed beyond them.

Scarlets: Tries J Davies 2, McCusker 2; Conversions Priestland 4; Penalties Priestland. London Irish: Tries Homer, Paice, Hala'ufia; Conversions Lamb 2; Penalty Lamb.

Scarlets: D Evans; M Stoddard, S Lamont, J Davies, A Fenby; R Priestland, M Roberts; I Thomas (P John, 60), K Owens, D Manu, L Reed, D Day (D Welch, 60), R McCusker, J Turnbull (J Edwards, 60), D Lyons (capt).

London Irish: D Armitage; P Hewat, E Seveali'i, S Mapusua, T Homer (J Rudd, 52); R Lamb (C Malone, 67), P Hodgson (P Richards, 67); C Dermody (P Ion, 52), D Paice (D Coetzee, 64), F Rautenbach, N Kennedy, B Casey (capt; K Roche, 74), R Thorpe (G Johnson, 74), S Armitage, C Hala'uifa.

Referee: J Garces (France).