Ebbw Vale were robbed of their moment of history last night when the London Irish wing Jarrod Cunningham landed a penalty kick in the fifth minute of injury time to complete a thrilling European Shield victory which the Exiles did not deserve.
Vale were within seconds of becoming the first Welsh club to reach the semi-finals of the competition when the referee, Joel Jutge, spotted an infringement at a maul. Up stepped Cunningham and silenced a near sell-out crowd at Eugene Cross Park.
Cunningham's seventh successful kick, a 100 per cent record on the day, wrapped up a fine five-minute spell for the Exiles, but in truth much of the running for the remaining 75 minutes had been made by the Steelmen. Ebbw Vale produced a fine team performance, from scrum-half Guy Easterby and the hard-hitting, fast-running back line through to the big-hearted men up front. Nathan Budgett, the Wales flanker, and captain Mark Jones were immense in the back row, but ultimately the Irish survived through nerve and sterling defence.
The Welsh side were in the Exiles' faces from the start, and if Vale had not conceded so many penalties and been on the receiving end of some bizarre decisions from the Frenchman Jutge, they might not have been pipped at the post. But Cunningham landed five penalties before the interval and Vale had to utilise their more expansive style of rugby under coach Richard Hill - they will miss him when he leaves to take up the reins at Harlequins at the end of the season - to compete.
Budgett showed superlative sense and skill to make ground when Vale countered following some wasted possession by Irish. When the ball was worked back, centre Siva Taumololu burst through, drew the cover and sent full-back Jonathan Williams steaming in for the score. Their second try in injury- time owed a great deal to the remarkable anticipation of Taumololu, who was almost under Jason Strange's cross- kick when the fly-half launched it fully 30 metres behind the defence. No matter. The Tongan wriggled and rolled through Conor O'Shea's tackle and was granted the touchdown. No one had spotted the offside.
Irish mistakes abounded throughout. At set pieces they would knock on, in broken play they would lose the ball in contact, passes would find empty space and on a couple of occasions they knocked on when attempting tap 22-metre drop outs - poor fare for professionals. Vale were streetwise in the close encounters and canny out wide. The difference though was Cunningham.
Ebbw Vale: J Williams; R Shorney, S Taumalolo, J Hawker, A Wagstaff; J Strange (S Connor, 58), G Easterby (R Smith, 79); A Phillips (I Thomas, 63), L Phillips, A Metcalfe, K Faletau, G Llewellyn (L Banks, 63), N Budgett, M Jones (capt), P Williams.
London Irish: C O'Shea (capt); K Campbell (M Rivaro, 41), J Bishop, B Whetstone, J Cunningham; S Bachop, J Tonu'u; N Hatley (M Worsley, 64), R Kirke, S Halford (K Fullman, 76), R Strudwick, B Cockbain (R Hunter, 72), A Mower, R Gallacher,K Dawson.
Referee: J Jutge (France).Reuse content