The Irish have it right. Everyone at Twickenham says so, from the Rugby Football Union chief executive, Francis Baron, to the bloke on the gate with his walkie-talkie and his hobnail boots. Even people who fell out of love with Twickenham, like Sir Clive Woodward, point to the provincial structure across the water and covet it on behalf of an English game they believe is dying on its feet. Well, the Irish had it right on Saturday, that's for sure. London Irish, of the much-maligned Guinness Premiership. The Irish who got it wrong were Ulster who, for all the advantages of a sympathetic fixture list and an advanced approach to player welfare, found themselves on the painful end of some marvellous individual performances.
What was more, some of these striking contributions were made by - gasp - young English-qualified players, which flew directly in the face of the theories promoted by those who blame the professional clubs for everything, including Mad Cow Disease and the demise of the Post Office. Steffon Armitage, for instance, did the Exiles proud with his energetic work in the back row. He is 21. Shane Geraghty was even better, to the extent that he can immediately be counted among the medium-term contenders for the England outside-half berth. He is 20, and an absolute diamond.
If Geraghty did one or two things badly, he did dozens of things outstandingly well. Where to start? His side's first try, scored by the equally influential Juan Manuel Leguizamon, is as good a place as any. The youngster had already thrown the most cultured of cut-out passes to free Sailosi Tagicakibau down the left when he committed the front rank of the Ulster defence with a cleverly disguised dart, thereby paving the way for Mike Catt and Seilala Mapusua to slice up the remains with an inspired delivery apiece.
Geraghty's next trick was of a different order altogether - an angled left-footed chip that fell plumb into the path of Catt, who promptly kicked ahead again and claimed his five points at the sticks. When Geraghty then made mincemeat of a fragile Ulster midfield with the simplest of show-and-go tries just past the hour, his work was done for the day. Apart from converting his own score, of course. This he duly did. Indeed, he did not miss a kick all match.
"Shane is streets ahead of other 20-year-olds - he has a lot of talent, and the work ethic to go with it," said Catt afterwards. The old boy was not so bad himself. He chaperoned Geraghty with great skill, steering him clear of the danger areas while distancing himself sufficiently to allow his partner ample freedom of expression. And when he spied an opportunity to let rip, he did it with meaning. Catt launched the attack of the match from deep in his own 22, taking some heavy artillery in the ribs in releasing Mapusua before hauling himself off the deck for another go in the same movement. Age will eventually wither him, but his enthusiasm is boundless.
Ulster, who had rather fancied this game before kick-off, could make no sense of any of it. London Irish had two outside backs in the sin-bin at one point, yet the visitors failed to make hay in the winter sunshine. They offered neither the invention of a Leinster nor the ruthlessness of a Munster. If they beat London Irish in the return match at Ravenhill on Friday night - and they win in Belfast with the same monotonous regularity as they lose everywhere else - the message from this game will remain unchanged. Ulster are still well short of where they want to be, while London Irish have a realistic chance of recapturing the glories of last season.
London Irish: Tries Leguizamon, Catt, Geraghty, Tagicakibau; Conversions Geraghty 3; Penalty Everitt. Ulster: Try Steinmetz; Conversion Humphreys. Penalties Humphreys 2.
London Irish: D Armitage; J Bishop, S Mapusua, M Catt (capt; G Tiesi, 73), S Tagicakibau; S Geraghty (B Everitt, 73), P Hodgson; N Hatley (M Collins, 47), R Russell (D Coetzee, 47), T Lea'aetoa (F Rautenbach, 60), N Kennedy (J Hudson, 76), R Casey, K Roche (P Murphy, 55), S Armitage, J-M Leguizamon.
Ulster: B Cunningham (M Bartholomeusz, 63); T Bowe, P Steinmetz, P Wallace, A Trimble; D Humphreys, I Boss; B Young (J Fitzpatrick, 60), R Best, S Best (capt), J Harrison, M McCullough (T Barker, 45-56), N Best, K Dawson (N McMillan, 73), R Wilson.
Referee: J Jutge (France).Reuse content