London Irish 28 Leeds 24: Davies refuses to concede defeat

Bonus points mean Leeds are strictly still alive but the drop to the national leagues is looming
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The Independent Online

This time last year Leeds were pulling Easter bunnies out of hats all over the place with the result that, having seemed destined for the drop, they hopped off the trapdoor and left Harlequins as the fall guys. The Tykes fought like Tigers, their belief was extraordinary and they went on to win the Powergen Cup at Twickenham. They have been looking back ever since.

After getting off to a dreadful start this season - they lost their first seven games - they have spent the entire campaign staring up at the other 11 Premiership clubs and there has been little sign of a resurrection. Yesterday they suffered their fifth defeat from their last six league matches but if they were drinking in the last-chance saloon they ignored the call of "time gentlemen, please".

With seconds left on the clock Leeds conjured a try by Nathan Thomas which has given them the faintest of pulses. It earned them two bonus points, one for a fourth try and one for finishing within seven points, and perhaps they should have got a third for their sheer bloody mindedness.

It was all too much for their captain Stuart Hooper, who received a yellow card in the first half and another in the second which transposed into a red and he trooped off in the 61st minute. Down to 14 men, Leeds' immediate response was a stunning try by Tom Biggs. Olivier Magne spilled possession close to the Leeds 22 and Justin Marshall released Biggs who went on the run faster than any Great Train Robber.

That made it 21-17 but then a fumble by Gordon Ross led to an equally spectacular try from Delon Armitage and London Irish had opened up an 11-point lead.

However, Thomas's late, late intervention prompted Phil Davies, Leeds' director of rugby, to comment: "Our pride is intact and we have given ourselves some hope."

If they get out of this Harry Houdini might yet come back from the dead. Leeds are eight points adrift of Newcastle and will have to win their remaining two matches while praying that the Falcons, who play today, pick up absolutely nothing.

Some of Leeds' recent defeats, most suffered in injury time, have been cruel in the extreme but the Tykes, who broke into the magic circle in 2001, have generally found the Premiership a hand-to-mouth existence. They have been at the forefront of some groundbreaking initiatives with rugby league at Headingley but the crowds have been poor and the results unsatisfactory.

Davies, who had been at the heart of Leeds' rise from the ranks, had to take a back seat in mid-season when Daryl Powell was promoted from league as the head coach. Davies, working with the smallest squad in the Premiership, has put a brave face on things and he may have to be braver still if he fails to get the Wales coaching job. It is understood that he was virtually offered the post by the Welsh Rugby Union executive but that they have been overruled by the management board, who will decide between Davies and Gareth Jenkins. The latter is now the warm favourite.

It may be a cliché but it is also true that there are no easy games in the Premiership, as the Irish discovered here. If Leeds were fighting, literally at times, for their future, the Irish also had a huge incentive. A top-four finish will not only put them in the play-offs but also secure them a lucrative place in the Heineken Cup. Last night they had moved up into second, behind Sale, the highest they have ever been, but they did not make life easy for themselves with poor finishing and sloppy handling.

They could have had two or three tries before Riki Flutey put them ahead with a penalty in the ninth minute, by which time Marshall was already having words with the referee Chris White. After 20 minutes, when all other forms of attack had floundered, Flutey kicked to the left-hand corner where Declan Danaher was lurking with intent.

From the re-start, Flutey found Iain Balshaw instead of the touchline and the former England full-back sparked a smart blind-side move that was finished by Marshall. The ex-All Black No 9 has been a big-money signing in a small-money club but he doesn't half earn his salary. Even so, in the context of the season it was like Jose Mourinho moving to Scarborough.

After Nils Mordt had put the Irish 15-5 ahead, Hooper got his first yellow for stamping on Phil Murphy and he was joined in the sin bin by Magne, who had riled the Tykes captain. After going into a huddle, Leeds came within three points when Chris Bell was driven over at the posts. Flutey re-established Irish's advantage with a couple of penalties before Hooper received a second card for punching Danaher. As a spectator, at least Hooper was able to take pride in Leeds's finish.

Leeds' fate could be sealed today at Newcastle but Davies will not be watching. "I'll be walking in the Yorkshire Dales," he said. "Those two points mean we are still alive. We can look each other in the eyes and whatever happens the club will have learnt a lot from this."

London Irish: D Armitage; T Ojo, N Mordt (S Geraghty, 32), M Catt (capt), S Tagicakibau; R Flutey, P Hodgson (D Edwards, 75); N Hatley, R Russell (D Paice, 40), F Rautenbach (R Skuse, 40), B Casey (R Strudwick, 70), K Roche, D Danaher, P Murphy (J Leguizamon, 48), O Magne (K Dawson, 66).

Leeds: I Balshaw; A Snyman, C Bell, C Jones (G Ross, 40), T Biggs; R de Marigny, J Marshall; M Shelley, G Bulloch (R Rawlinson, 50), R Gerber, C Murphy (K Myall, 55), S Hooper (capt), S Morgan, J Crane, N Thomas.

Referee: C White (Gloucestershire).