London Irish 20 Sale 12: Geraghty's guile gives England a timely reminder

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The Independent Online

Now Jonny Wilkinson has snatched a Premiership game out of the fire with his kicking, his many supporters will expect those who have the temerity to wonder whether he is still the best outside-half in England or, indeed, whether he has ever been all he is generally cracked up to be to put a sock in it for another few years. Such questions are not the stuff of heresy, however, especially when the likes of Olly Barkley, Danny Cipriani, Ryan Lamb and Toby Flood are playing so convincingly. And Shane Geraghty too. It would be daft to forget Geraghty.

Yesterday, the 21-year-old midfielder found himself out of position at inside centre, yet still managed to show the best of himself in shaping a victory that should inspire his club to great deeds of derring-do on the Heineken Cup front. He was in the thick of the build-up to all three London Irish tries, and his work overshadowed the contribution of Sale's major signing from New Zealand, Luke McAlister, so comprehensively that it was legitimate to wonder which of the two was the celebrated All Black and which the England apprentice.

"He can be a little excitable a forward's worst nightmare," said Toby Booth, the London Irish coach who is beginning to make something of an Exiles pack blessed with an unusual degree of athleticism (David Paice and Declan Danaher) as well as a liberal helping of old-fashion crash and clatter (Bob Casey, Bob Casey and Bob Casey).

"But we sometimes forget how young he is and if he feels he can score from any part of the field, which he does, we don't want to coach it out of him. He's strung two or three games together now after a spell of injury and we're beginning to see the kind of touches that put him in England contention in the first place."

Thanks largely to Geraghty's ability to throw pinpoint 25-metre passes off either hand, Irish were never less than threatening. The game was a mere 73 seconds old when he hit Delon Armitage with a long ball across the face of the Sale defence, thereby allowing the full-back to open a path to the left corner for the rapid Sailosi Tagicakibau, and when, at the other end of the half, there was a shorter delivery to be made, the timing of his flick to Gonzalo Tiesi was a joy to behold. He was at it again in the opening moments of the second period, nursing Armitage to the line after Julien Laharrague had dropped McAlister eyeball-deep in the you-know-what with a horrible pass 20 metres or so from his own line.

It was too good for Sale. There again, most things would have been too good for Sale yesterday. "If you spend your afternoon passing the ball straight to the spectators in the stand rather than hanging on to it, you're bound to lose," muttered Philippe Saint-Andr, the visitors' director of rugby, after seeing his side disappear in a fog of confusion and calamity. The absence of Charlie Hodgson did not help their cause the outside-half withdrew in the hours before the game, complaining of a dodgy knee but with a player as good as McAlister available for the make-do-and-mend duties, the problem should not have been terminal.

Sale expected to outscrummage their hosts, squeezing their pips and rubbing their noses in the dirt at every set-piece. After all, Andrew Sheridan and Sbastien Bruno are among the most effective grunt-and-groaners in the league. As it turned out, the Exiles refused to budge.

With their bomb-proof line-out every bit as polished as usual, even against ball-raiders as accomplished as Chris Jones and Magnus Lund, there was a steady flow of possession being channelled towards a back division long on creativity as well as raw pace.

All things considered, though, the big winner may have been Paice rather than Geraghty in the immediate term, at any rate. The Irish line-out has been operating at almost 100 per cent capacity since it opened for business last September, and as the 6ft 1in hooker is the man feeding the thing, he must be doing an awful lot right. According to Booth, he has also made significant strides in the scrum management department and improved his fitness to boot. If he fails to make the England squad for the forthcoming Six Nations Championship it will not be by much.

On this evidence, the Exiles have one or two other half-decent players working their way through the system. Armitage, for instance, has many of the attributes of an international-class No 15 sharp pace, an unusual degree of strength for one so spindly and a highly-developed sense of adventure.

He also has a side to him that no full back needs: that is to say, a burning desire to participate in whatever fight might be happening, or start one of his own if the other 29 players are behaving themselves. Booth's assertion that this aggression "makes him what he is" will not cut too much ice with the refereeing fraternity. Armitage behaved himself for six whole minutes before tripping Mark Cueto and earning himself a spell in the cooler, and by the time he returned, McAlister had cut the deficit to four points. Sale would get no closer, however, and did not deserve to do so.

London Irish: Tries Tagicakibau, Tiesi, D Armitage. Conversion D Armitage. Penalty Hickey. Sale: Penalties McAlister 4.

London Irish: D Armitage; T Ojo, G Tiesi (N Mordt, h-t), S Geraghty, S Tagicakibau; E Hickey, P Hodgson (P Richards, 49); C Dermody (D Murphy, 52), D Paice (D Coetzee, 75), T Lea'aetoa, N Kennedy (J Hudson, 79), R Casey (capt), D Danaher, S Armitage (P Murphy, 71), R Thorpe (J M Leguizamon, 52).

Sale: J Laharrague; M Cueto, C Mayor, L Thomas (R Keil, 56), O Ripol; L McAlister, R Wigglesworth; A Sheridan (L Faure, 74), S Bruno (N Briggs, 61), E Roberts (S Turner, 47), C Jones, B Cockbain (D Schofield, 50), J White (capt), M Lund, S Chabal.

Referee: S Davey (London).

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