There are so-called pools of death in the Heineken Cup, and this isn't one of them. What London Irish have been reclining in so far has been more of a Jacuzzi. Yesterday they moved a step closer to reaching the quarter-finals, something the club have never achieved before.
Last November, the Irish crossed the Severn Bridge and blew the Dragons away in the first half before winning 45-17. Here they again picked up a bonus point before half-time, but thereafter their performance was sloppy and complacent.
"It was a carbon copy of what we did in Newport, apart from one big difference," Toby Booth, the Irish forwards coach, said. "We took our foot off the gas and drifted away."
The Irish were 17-0 in front after 17 minutes, 24-0 up after 26 and they had a bonus point in the bag for a fourth try by the 37th minute. They were looking good for a record score but they took off a couple of their key players and Newport played some enterprising stuff, enjoying a purple patch with three unanswered tries to make it 34-24. They picked up one of the unlikeliest bonus points of the competition, not that it mattered.
"I was happy with the first 40 minutes but we lost our way in the second half when we didn't control the ball," Brian Smith, the Irish's director of rugby, said. "If you can get four tries in the first half there's no reason why you can't go on and get eight. But the most important thing is that we've still got control of the pool, and that's the best position the club have ever been in."
The Irish, making only their third appearance in Europe's blue riband event, are top of their group with 19 points and complete the pool stage with a visit to Treviso next weekend. "That's not going to be easy," Smith said. "Newport didn't contest our line-out drive but the Italians will. I expect a dogfight. We'll have a French referee, the pitch will be watered and even the touchlines might come in a bit. We have got to win the pool. If we don't we'll lose momentum."
Both sides received a rollocking from their coaches here, Newport at half-time for what Paul Turner, their director of rugby, described as an "unacceptable performance" and the Irish for dropping their guard.
Peter Hewat opened the scoring with the only penalty of a highly entertaining if flawed affair, after which 10 tries were scored, six by the home side.
It took the Irish 13 minutes for their first touchdown and their promising No 8 Richard Thorpe could not believe how easy it was. Receiving a passon the right flank, he was surrounded by four defenders and he still made it to the line.
Newport, who had already found the Heineken a bit too strong for their taste, were unable to select from strength – they had as many as 15 players out injured – but there were no excuses for some feeble, half-hearted defending. Thorpe, who has come through the academy system, went on to score a hat-trick but the strange thing is he did not win the man-of-the-match award.
That honour went to the young golden boy Shane Geraghty, for the second match in succession. Newport were denied a try when Geraghty was penalised for killing the ball close to his line. He was lucky not to get a yellow card. A few minutes later Paul Emerick, the Newport centre, was sent to the sin-bin for a similar offence and in his absence Geraghty, who was playing at centre rather than hisusual stand-off, shredded the Newport midfield, escaping three defenders for what has become a familiar sight – a dazzling solo effort.
Geraghty did not make England's elite squad of 32 for the Six Nations but he is in the Saxons. "I think he's timing his run pretty well," Smith said. "Shane would be good with Jonny Wilkinson inside him and I wouldn't be surprised if he gets some Six Nations action."
He said the same of his scrum-half Peter Richards, who yesterday had the freedom of the Madejski Stadium. His strength, pace and aggression were too hot for Newport to handle. Richards was responsible for Eoghan Hickey's try and much else besides, and Newport were relieved to see him given a rest after 47 minutes.
Either side of half-time the Welsh region conceded further tries, to Hewat and Thorpe. Thorpe's second made it 34-7 but then Newport produced excellent tries from Ben Daly, Gareth Wyatt and Ceri Sweeney. Irish's lead was down to 10 points but normality was restored when Thorpe completed his hat-trick five minutes from time.
London Irish: P Hewat (G Tiesi, 47); T Ojo, DArmitage, S Geraghty, S Tagicakibau; E Hickey, P Richards (P Hodgson, 47); C Dermody (D Murphy,24), D Paice (D Coetzee, 54), T Lea'aetoa, N Kennedy (J Hudson, 59), B Casey (capt), D Danaher, RThorpe, S Armitage (P Murphy, 71).
Newport-Gwent Dragons: A Thomas; R Mustoe (G Wyatt, 54), P Emerick, A Smith (P Dollman, 62), R Fussell; C Sweeney, W Evans; A Black, B Daly (K Crawford, 74), G Robinson (H Gustafson, 51), A Hall, P Sidoli, J Bearman, M Owen (capt;L Evans, 51; A Walker, 71), J Harris.
Referee: P Allan (Scotland).