Irish wobble on road to Europe

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The Independent Online

Uncertainty is the name of the game as we reach the business end of the most punishing season in memory. While the sub-text to the impossibly demanding final few weeks of bruising action is not only who wins what, but the European factor: who will qualify and how?

Both Newcastle and London Irish were involved in European Shield games at the weekend which they could have done without. Speaking at a lunch in London before their trip to Ebbw Vale, the London Irish director of rugby, Dick Best, said: "I couldn't really care less about the Shield. There's nothing in it for us. Only the winners qualify for the much more important European Cup, and the chances of an English side winning the Shield final on French soil are about as likely as Hansie Cronje being elected the next chairman of the ICC. Our route to the European Cup is through the Premiership, starting at Newcastle on Tuesday night."

Having won unexpectedly in Wales, Irish now face a Shield semi-final in Castres and the re-arrangement of Premiership matches against Bristol and Wasps; two of the eight English clubs still able to qualify for next season's European Cup. Rob Andrew, the Newcastle director of rugby, said after his team's defeat in Pau: "Whoever put this fixture in, only three days after the European quarter-finals, is just crazy."

Well before an entertaining first half ended, Irish were not only searching for some inspiration, but shaking their heads and looking to one another for ideas on how to come to terms with wave upon wave of Newcastle attacks. With the home back row in rumbustious form and Jonny Wilkinson changing the direction of each assault, the Exiles were stretched to limit the score to 23-3.

Wilkinson began with penalties either side of one by Jarrod Cunningham, before concealing a pass with great cunning allowing Tom May to outwit the Irish defence with a shimmy, two side-steps and a dummy for a glorious try. Va'aiga Tuigamala sliced through the middle, holding Ben Whetstone at bay with utter disdain for the second. Wilkinson converted both and added a third penalty to maintain the momentum.

But Irish were far from finished and raised their attacking flag when Conor O'Shea touched down in the right corner, Cunningham converted and added a second penalty in advance of a try by Gary Armstrong to take it to 28-13. Cunningham then made it interesting with a try which he converted, after slotting his third penalty.

Newcastle: Tries May, Tuigamala, Armstrong; Conversions Wilkinson 2; Penalties Wilkinson 3. London Irish: Tries O' Shea, Cunningham; Conversions Cunningham 2; Penalties Cunningham 3.

Newcastle: P Massey; S Legg, J Noon, T May (M Shaw, 59), V Tuigamala; J Wilkinson, G Armstrong (capt); I Peel, M Howe (R Horton, 82), M Hurter, S Grimes, D Weir, S O'Neil (J Rule, 49), R Arnold (H Vyvyan, 33), R Beattie.

London Irish: C O'Shea (capt); M Rivaro, J Bishop, B Whetstone, J Cunningham; S Bachop, J Tonu'u; N Hatley (K Fullman, 70), R Kirke, S Halford ( Worsley, 70), R Strudwick, B Cockbain, A Mower (I Fea'unati, 23), K Dawson (R Hunter, 5), R Gallacher.

Referee: J Barnard (Driffield).