London Irish 13 Harlequins 6: Rautenbach and Ross prop up case for current laws

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The Independent Online

If you can imagine a game of rugby in which the scrum was the most gripping theatre of action, in which the line-out tested the skills and discipline of every forward on the field, in which the breakdown was so fiercely contested that the age-old mutual loathing between two neighbouring clubs rose slowly to the surface in a smoulder of spit and snarl, in which hulking great lumps like Faan Rautenbach and Mike Ross were every bit as significant as a Shane Geraghty or a David Strettle – if you can imagine all this, you're imagining the events that unfolded in Reading at the weekend. And certain members of the International Rugby Board want to do away with it? To hell with them.

Very little happened at the Madejski Stadium on Saturday that the theoreticians behind the governing body's so-called "experimental law variations" would have understood, let alone celebrated. For a start, only one try was scored. To those who see the try as rugby's version of football's goal – that is to say, something not handed out free with cornflakes packets – this was perfectly acceptable; to those labouring under the infantile delusion that more tries equal more entertainment, it would have been anathema. Fortunately, precious few of the latter were in Berkshire for this game. Most of them were back home in Australia, watching the latest nonsense served up by the dead-duck Super 14.

It has already been reported in these pages that if the board's "laws project group" gets its way at a meeting next month, the ELVs will be imposed on all levels of northern hemisphere rugby in August. This will allow the maul to be collapsed, thereby ensuring its terminal decline, and permit the use of hands in the ruck – a ball-killer's charter if ever there was one. It will also reduce every game to a harum-scarum riot of free-kicks, which in turn will devalue the set piece and leave specialists such as Rautenbach and Ross with nothing much to do. They might as well book a flight to Tokyo and take up sumo.

Between them, the two tight-head props weighed in at a cool 40st. Rautenbach, a Bluto lookalike from South Africa with 14 Springbok caps to his name, was marginally the heavier and by some distance the less mobile, and by the end of the first half he was in danger of seizing up completely, hence his decision to spend much of the interval jogging slowly up and down the deserted field. But he won a couple of set-piece penalties against in the in-form Harlequins loose head Ceri Jones and played a major role in wearing down the visitors, thus leaving them vulnerable to the late Irish rally that proved decisive.

Ross, considerably more athletic than appearances might suggest, was still going hard at the death, and he was somewhat unfortunate to concede the penalty that allowed Eoghan Hickey to put the home side 6-3 ahead in the final minute of normal time. The Quins coaching staff felt Ross had rumbled clean through a ruck from a legitimate position to stifle a promising Irish attack, and they were even less pleased when, five minutes later, the rapid Topsy Ojo was allowed a try despite a deeply suspicious scoring pass from the magnificent Seilala Mapusua.

"I have no complaints," muttered Quins' director of rugby, Dean Richards. "Yes, the referee signalled that the ball was out of the ruck, then penalised Mike; yes, he missed a forward pass for the try. But when a team concedes as much first-phase possession as we did, they stand very little chance of winning. We showed a willingness to attack from anywhere on the field and we defended with great enthusiasm, but you can't keep playing rugby in the wrong areas and you can't play at all without the ball."

Actually, the ELVs might make it easier for certain types of team to do both of those things. Certainly, they will stop a side like London Irish winning a hard game of rugby in the way they won this one. Toby Booth, a forwards coach increasingly appreciated in the higher echelons of the English game, was right in thinking that the pressure imposed by his team in the first 40 minutes allowed them to secure victory in the last half-dozen or so. One of the factors underpinning his club's advance to the last four of Europe is their expertise at the set piece. That could count for a whole lot less in August than it does now.

Both sides have more urgent issues to address, if not more important ones. The Exiles face Toulouse, capable of playing the rugby of the gods under any set of laws, at Twickenham this weekend in their first Heineken Cup semi-final. Quins, still occupying a play-off place, know they will almost certainly require at least one victory from their two remaining Premiership fixtures: a home match with Sale in 13 days' time and a trip to Leicester on 10 May.

There are no guarantees they will secure that win, but they deserve to make it through. Cast in this season's fly-in-the-ointment role, as Bristol were before them, they have made a tremendous fist of it – not by spending heavily south of the Equator, but by developing English talent by the cartload. Mike Brown, George Robson, Chris Robshaw and Tom Guest all had their moments at the weekend, while Danny Care played a terrific hand at scrum-half. Quins have been surprisingly good this term. Next term, they will surprise no one.

London Irish: Try Ojo; Conversion Hickey; Penalties Hickey 2. Harlequins: Penalties Jarvis 2.

London Irish: P Hewat (E Hickey, 48); T Ojo, P Richards, S Mapasua, S Tagicakibau; S Geraghty, P Hodgson (N Mordt, 67); D Murphy (T Lea'aetoa, 67), D Paice (D Coetzee, 57), F Rautenbach (P Murphy, 75), J Hudson, R Casey (capt), D Danaher (J M Leguizamon, 67), S Armitage, R Thorpe (G Johnson, 80).

Harlequins: M Brown; D Strettle, U Monye, T Masson (D Barry, 79), T Williams (S So'oialo, 66); A Jarvis, D Care; C Jones, G Botha (T Fuga, 66), M Ross, O Kohn (J Evans, 66), G Robson, C Robshaw, W Skinner (capt), N Easter (T Guest, 72).

Referee: C White (Gloucestershire; S Davey, Sussex).

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