Irish spring the first suprise

Rugby Union: Castaignede and his all stars suffer a rude awakening as Exiles make themselves at home at the Madejski
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The Independent Online

Saracens surrendered their leadership of the Zurich Premiership, as London Irish threw a fine old house-warming party in Reading. The best efforts of Thomas Castaignÿde, who scored all Saracens' points on his return to the side after getting married last week, were not enough to save the visitors from their first defeat of the season.

Saracens surrendered their leadership of the Zurich Premiership, as London Irish threw a fine old house-warming party in Reading. The best efforts of Thomas Castaignÿde, who scored all Saracens' points on his return to the side after getting married last week, were not enough to save the visitors from their first defeat of the season.

Followers of these two clubs have roamed the home counties in support of their heroes these last few years, adding the road map to the hip flask and binoculars. In defence of London Irish's latest switch, they had intended to continue ground-sharing with Harlequins for another year, and in any case it is terribly difficult to feel antipathy to a club who measure success in the number of pints of Guinness sold.

In the bowels of the Madejski Staium's west stand, grey concrete has replaced the spit-and-sawdust bars that both the Irish and Saracens used to call home, but in among one knot of supporters were a sprinkling of Richmond shirts and others from as far afield as New Orleans and Boston. Premiership clubs relentlessly promote their individual brands, but a rugby match should still be a gathering of anyone who enjoys a jaw and a jar.

The latest London Irish slogan is "The Craic in the Valley". If that sounds like a geological fault has hit Berkshire, then it will probably take an almost seismic impact among the locals if this is not to be another temporary stop. Yet a crowd of 7,312 was an encouraging start, reward for the Irish's marketing director, Malcolm Ball, and a range of solutions to what he readily admits can be a "ghostly" atmosphere in a two-thirds empty stadium. Among the attractions were a band of Irish pipes and drums, the obligatory bouncy castles and mascot (one Digger the Wolfhound), and a particularly laudable scheme of £1 tickets for under-16s.

The paying customers had plenty on the field to engage them, too. The former Bedford wing Paul Sackey sprinted clear from the halfway line to score a counter-attacking first try for the Irish after two minutes, and set the tone for an incident-packed encounter.

While Saracens dropped former England man Tony Diprose from their back row for the first time in an incredible 203 matches, instead favouring the more muscular Kris Chesney at No 8, Irish stuck with their breakaway trio who have had a storming start to the season. Kieron Dawson had another mighty match, although it helped when gifts such as Matt Cairns' stray line-out throw went down his throat, leading to a first penalty goal for Jarrod Cunningham six minutes in.

A penalty by Castaignÿde was followed by two more for Cunningham that pushed Irish out to 16-3. Then Dawson squeezed into the left corner after a width of the field move that was set up by Cunningham's kick to the wide right and a ball-spilling tackle by Justin Bishop on Saracens' wing Darragh O'Mahony as the latter covered back.

Alongside Dawson, Eddie Halvey was tearing into his former Saracens team-mates with a will, but a rare lapse by the Irish forwards allowed Castaignÿde to sneak through for a try direct from a line-out.

The Frenchman continued to occupy centre stage, and not just by dint of his return to the bleached-blond look. He spent a couple of minutes flat out on the turf after ducking into a tackle, picked himself up to tear through the Irish cover only to knock on in the shadow of the posts, and finally capped a hurly-burly spell with a towering dropped goal.

Cunningham and Castaignÿde traded two penalty goals apiece either side of the interval, and Saracens decided to introduce Diprose as they moved into catch-up mode. But they lost their playmaker Duncan McRae to the after effects of a high tackle that earned Tabai Matson a sin-binning, the same fate that befell Steve Williams and Julian White after an earlier punch-up.

With the onus on Saracens to force the pace, even Castaignÿde, now at outside-half, began to err. Irish's coach Dick Best has been gradually weaning his men off the frippery and unpredictability traditionally associated with the club, and they deserved their win. The last bus left the Madejski at nine last night, and it was probably full.

London Irish: C O'Shea (capt); J Bishop, T Matson (K Ellis 70), J Wright, P Sackey; J Cunningham, K Campbell; M Worsley (N Hatley 55), R Kirke, S Halford (R Hardwick 50), S Williams, R Strudwick, E Halvey (D Danaher 9-17), K Dawson, C Sheasby

Saracens: T Castaignÿde; D Luger, B Johnston, K Sorrell, D O'Mahony; D McRae (B Sparg 66), K Bracken (capt); D Flatman (P Wallace 55), M Cairns, J White, S Murray (B Davison 55), D Grewcock, R Hill, T Roques (P Wallace 25-27), K Chesney (T Diprose 49)

Referee: B Campsall (Halifax)

Pienaar's plan, Page 19

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