London Irish 41 Newport-Gwent 24: Thorpe the invisible man has Exiles on brink of last eight

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Following his performance against Sale the previous week, a virtuoso effort that earned him the man of the match award, Shane Geraghty was again singled out for the honour here, although nobody was quite sure why. It must be a celebrity thing. People have seen and read about England's exciting young prospect and the same cannot be said for Richard Thorpe.

Up against the Wales No 8 and the Newport captain Michael Owen, Thorpe, a graduate of the London Irish academy, scored three of his side's six tries and it would have been four had he not unselfishly offloaded close to the line.

"How he wasn't made man of the match is a mystery," said Toby Booth, the Irish forwards coach. "I can only assume that the decision was made by Shane's mum. We are spoilt for choice for No 8s and Richard has been a bit-part player for us, but he's fronted up, he's really tough and he's a good ball carrier."

He might have added that he is an exceptional try scorer. Thorpe scored the first try of the match after 13 minutes when he took a pass on the right wing, cut inside and smashed his way through four defenders, none of whom produced a copybook tackle. At that point it was clear that Newport, whose squad was missing no fewer than 15 injured players, were there for the taking and sure enough the Irish had gained a four-try bonus point before half-time, just as they had against the same opponents in the away first leg in November.

It has left them top of Pool One, which is more of an oasis than a group of death, on 19 points and within touching distance of their first appearance in the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup. "If we reach the quarter-finals it will have a massive knock-on effect throughout the club," Booth said.

However, the Irish are seeking something more than mere qualification – they want a home tie to draw a big crowd to the Madejski, a ground they like so much they have signed up to play there until at least 2026. By then Geraghty will have retired.

A natural stand-off, here he played centre and while Paul Emerick was in the sin bin he scored a brilliant individual try. Geraghty has not made England's elite squad but is in the second string Saxons.

"He's timing his run pretty well," said Brian Smith, Irish's director of rugby. "I wouldn't be surprised if he gets some Six Nations action."

Next weekend they conclude the group stage with a visit to Treviso, where Smith is expecting a "dogfight." He went so far as to suggest that the Italian club will doctor the pitch by excessive watering and that the "touchlines will come in a little bit". Surely not.

If Newport had no answer to the power of Thorpe, they were equally bemused by the pace and strength of the scrum-half Peter Richards, who repeatedly tore them apart. They were glad to see the back of him when he was rested after only 48 minutes, by which stage the Irish were 34-7 in front.

It was a stupid substitution. Newport, who had been given a roasting at half-time by their coach, Paul Turner, scored three tries in the next 16 minutes through Ben Daly, Gareth Wyatt and Ceri Sweeney. It not only brought them a bonus point of their own but, with the score at 34-24, the Irish were close to meltdown. It was Thorpe's third try five minutes from time that halted the process of evaporation.

The replacement of Richards was not the only odd decision. No sooner had Owen brilliantly created Daly's try than he was forced to troop off, fuming. "It's the name of the game," Turner said. "I wasn't very happy either. If you don't get a handle on players like Richards and Geraghty you're going to get punished." Funnily enough, he did not mention Thorpe.

London Irish: Tries Thorpe 3, Hickey, Geraghty, Hewat; Conversions Hewat 3, Hickey; Penalties Hewat. Newport-Gwent Dragons: Tries Fussell, Daly, Wyatt, Sweeney; Conversions Smith, Sweeney.

London Irish: P Hewat; T Ojo (T De Vedia, 40), D Armitage (P Murphy, 70), S Geraghty, S Tagicakibau; E Hickey, P Richards (P Hodgson, 48); C Dermody (D Murphy, 21), D Paice (D Coetzee, 55), T Lea'aetoa, N Kennedy (J Hudson, 59), B Casey, D Danaher, S Armitage, R Thorpe.

Newport-Gwent Dragons: A Thomas; R Mustoe (G Wyatt, 55), P Emerick, A Smith (P Dollman, 61), R Fussell; C Sweeney, W Evans (A Walker, 70); A Black, B Daly (K Crawford, 72), G Robinson (H Gustafson, 52), A Hall, P Sidoli, J Bearman, J Harris, M Owen (L Evans, 51).

Referee: P Allan (Scotland).