London Irish 11 Bristol 23: Hilton's exit fuels Bristol on their flight to the top

Prop's controversial sin-binning sparks surprise pacesetters to storm past Irish
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The Independent Online

A couple of calls by the referee, one extremely daft, another very brave, turned this match upside down. Both decisions, by the Premiership novice Rob Debney, benefited Bristol, although the first was meant to punish them. The West Country club, identified as relegation material before the start of the season, were sitting at the opposite end of the table last night after their second win on the road in three weeks.

A cardinal rule of this league is that those at home lose at their peril. The Irish, who were third in the Premiership last season, eight places above Bristol, looked comfortable here in the first half and took a lead that looked as if it could be increased whenever they pleased.

Bristol had already been exposed by a counter-attacking run from Delon Armitage which Juan Leguizamon failed to exploit, and they ran out of defenders when the Irish struck with a typically flamboyant score midway through the half. Topsy Ojo was sent hurtling down the right wing courtesy of a long pass by Mike Catt, and when the ball was quickly recycled Catt propelled another floater, this time to the left, where Olivier Magne found the unmarked Kieran Roche. Great stuff on their first home appearance of the season, but then... nothing.

Riki Flutey had put the Irish ahead in the second minute when Lee Robinson, fielding an up-and-under by Catt, was hit vertically by Dominic Feaunati and did well to remain intact. His reward was to be penalised for not releasing, but it was not that decision that got up Bristol's nose.

They were hanging on for grim life after they had seen their flanker Joe El Abd taken off on a stretcher with a dislocated ankle. Flutey embarked on a dangerous run at the end of which the Irish, 8-0 up, were awarded a series of penalties close to their opponents' line, but instead of kicking for goal they attempted to smash their way over.

It took Bristol 34 minutes to get on the scoreboard, Jason Strange landing a penalty, but two minutes later Irish were back on top. Paul Hodgson embarked on a little run, Dave Hilton was heavily involved in defence, hitting the deck along with several others. The veteran did not interfere with play and was trying to roll away when Mr Debney shoved a yellow card in his face. Hilton adjourned to the sin-bin, Flutey kicked the resultant penalty and Bristol went in at half-time 11-3 down and seething.

The second half, of course, was as chalk to cheddar. Bristol scored 20 points to nothing, and effigies of Mr Debney would have been burnt by the home supporters had they had the raw materials. "Two bad decisions cost us 14 points," Catt, the Irish captain, lamented. But he did not lay all the blame on the whistle blower. He labelled his team's second-half display"disgraceful", adding: "We've got to front up, we can't keep playing that way. In this game you've got to keep playing for 80 minutes. We've learnt an important lesson."

Brian Smith, the home coach, was not impressed by Bristol. "They slow it down and make it a dockyard brawl," he said. "We lost our composure." The Irish prop Neal Hatley came on to equal Tony Diprose's record of 174 league appearances and was given a shirt with no number. The rest of the team also slipped into anonymity, and within eight minutes of the restart were in trouble. The hooker Danie Coetzee went to the bin for tackling Shaun Perry two inches from where the scrum-half had taken a tap penalty, and with Strange on target with a couple of penalties the Irish lead was down to two.

Flutey, meanwhile, could not hit a barn door with his goalkicking, and in the 56th minute the referee made another controversial call. Armitage chipped out of defence and was sent sprawling as he chased his own kick. Did he just run into the defender or was he cynically taken out? Mr Debney saw no foul play and Dan Ward-Smith, with a smart pick-up and offload, released David Lemi on the left wing and the Samoan flyer flew over from 50 yards.

A few minutes later Lee Robinson got over in the right corner, having got past Catt, but Hodgson did enough to knock the wing into the corner flag before he managed to ground the ball. Robinson, though, did not have long to wait to provide an encore. The Irish conceded a careless turnover, Lemi got things moving and Robinson was set free by a pass that looked suspiciously forward.

"We improved our ball presentation, remained composed and used our superior fitness to come through," Richard Hill, the Bristol coach, said. "At one point we were hanging on by a thread but we showed a lot of character." A dockyard brawl? Perish the thought. Bristol are the creamy head of the Guinness Premiership.

London Irish: D Armitage; T Ojo, D Feaunati (B Everitt, 58), M Catt (capt), J Bishop; R Flutey, P Hodgson; T Lae'aetoa, D Coetzee (R Russell, 48), R Skuse, N Kennedy, J Hudson, K Roche, J Leguizamon, O Magne (R Russell, 50).

Bristol: J Taumalolo; L Robinson, R Higgitt, S Cox, C Morgan; J Strange, S Perry; D Hilton, M Regan, D Crompton, R Winters, G Llewellyn, M Salter (capt), D Ward-Smith, J El Abd (A To'oala, 25).

Referee: R Debney (Leicester).