It seemed to take an age, but when the London rivals finally snapped out of their stupor they managed to play some decent rugby. Irish have now won nine games in a row in all competitions and are unbeaten in 2008, although you would hardly have guessed it yesterday.
As for Saracens, their inconsistency has become a trademark. Last week, at home to Harlequins, they were worse than dire. They could not be as bad again and they weren't, but they remain a curious outfit.
After the replacement wing Kameli Ratuvou was worked over for a try in the 77th minute, Sarries had a chance to level the scores with the last kick of the match. Glen Jackson's penalty attempt, from about 40 yards on the angle, flew just wide of the right-hand upright. In case there was any doubt, half the Irish players frantically signalled that the kick had failed.
"If we had drawn that game it would have been a travesty," Toby Booth, Irish's forwards coach, said. "We like to play with tempo, almost at all costs. We got a bit excitable and lacked composure at times. There's a fine line between high tempo and suicide. I was amazed we were behind by a point at half-time. We won most of the ball, and quality possession at that."
But they did precious little with it until the Saracens defence went AWOL midway through the second half. Topsy Ojo turned the match on its head when he hurtled out of defence into the wide open spaces and intelligently found the left-wing, Sailosi Tagicakibau, with a flighted pass.
Tagicakibau still had plenty to do but his pace took him outside Francisco Leonelli, who only would have stopped his man had they been playing touch rugby. Although Peter Hewat's conversion rebounded from an upright the Irish were back in front at 17-16, and a few minutes later they appeared to be safe.
Hewat scooped up a pass on the half-volley, the defence hesitated and the full-back drew the last man before sending the speedy Argentina back GonzaloTiesi over unopposed. Happy days at the Madejski, but if the scoreline indicated that thiswas a glorious advertisement for the Guinness Premiership, it was misleading.
In perfect conditions there were innumerable handling and passing errors and Alan Gaffney, the Saracens director of rugby, almost lost count of the number of turnovers his side conceded. Strangely, the Irish, possessing a potent back three, were reluctant to exploit attacking opportunities from long range. At the death, when their lead had been reduced to three points, they failed to control two scrums, and it could have cost them dearly.
Gaffney had said that in terms of progressing to the play-offs, this was a "must-win" game. Yesterday his view changed. "You never say it's over. If we beat Sale next week we're back in the mix. We've gone forward from where we were last week and I couldn'tfault the players' effort. I'm not saying I'm satisfied but I'm a lot happier than I was. We were not as smart as we might have been but we played with a lot more adventure and ambition."
In the end the Irish got home by a goal, a try and five penalties to a goal, a try and four penalties. In the goal-kicking department, Hewat just got the better of Jackson. The referee, David Pearson, was in his pedantic mood and Jackson was first to tee it up when Delon Armitage, going for an interception which he very nearly completed, was penalised for a deliberate knock-on. A furious Armitage was marched back 10 yards for dissent.
After Kris Chesney was shown a yellow card for going over the top of a ruck, the only try of a poor half arrived in the 39th minute when Saracens, having sent Rodd Penney clear on the left, created room for Ben Skirving on the right. It was a rare moment of cohesion.
London Irish: P Hewat; T Ojo, D Armitage (G Tiesi, 40), S Mapusua, S Tagicakibau; M Catt, P Hodgson;T Lea'aetoa (R Skuse, 55), D Paice, F Rautenbach (D Murphy, 40), N Kennedy, B Casey (capt), K Roche (D Danaher, 50), R Thorpe, S Armitage.
Saracens: D Scarbrough; R Haughton (K Ratuvou,55), F Leonelli (B Russell, 58), A Powell, R Penney;G Jackson, N de Kock(capt); N Lloyd, F Ongaro (A Kyriacou, 58), C Visagie (C Johnston, 55), K Chesney,H Vyvyan, P Gustard, B Skirving, D Seymour (T Ryder, 75).
Referee: D Pearson Northumberland).Reuse content