Victory for Howells, fury from Venter

London Irish 27 Pontypridd 33
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The Independent Online

In a rousing, shuddering clash of similar styles, Pontypridd deservedly won the right to return to the Kassam Stadium in Oxford in a month's time. London Irish did not have to fall much from the high watermark they established at Twickenham a week ago in order for the Ponty tide to flood through to the final.

At the end, Irish's ultra-committed player-coach, Brendan Venter, stalked from the field with an angry refusal of the hand of the referee, Rob Dickson, while many of the 25 coachloads of supporters from Mid-Glamorgan rushed on to acclaim their heroes.

When the mist cleared, Venter was left to ruminate on a couple of pieces of indiscipline from his open-side flanker, Declan Danaher, which relieved the late pressure on Pontypridd, and a preparatory job expertly done by his opposite number, Wales's former assistant coach, Lynn Howells.

If points were awarded on the basis of proficiency at the set-piece, Pontypridd would have been out sight by the end of the opening quarter. Irish gave up possession at the first three line-outs on their own throw, and were turned over at a scrum, too, as the Welsh side went about their work with a will.

On Ponty's throw, a quartet of assured targets – Brent Cockbain (a former Exile), Robert Sidoli, Nick Kelly and Michael Owen – comfortably outguessed the London Irish jumpers. At outside-half, Ceri Sweeney had the measure of Barry Everitt, with a couple of sweet breaks off his left foot.

Yet the Irish reached half-time only three points adrift, and that by virtue of the afternoon's first penalty goal from Brett Davey in the third minute of injury time. As Northampton had found in their punishing Powergen Cup final defeat at the Exiles' hands, the Irish are ruthless at making field position count.

Ponty's support in a ground which was two-thirds' full received immediate encouragement when the black-and-white jerseys claimed a lovely try after only 70 seconds of the second half. Having nicked the ball on Richard Kirke's throw, the Pontypridd backs attacked to the left, with Sonny Parker and Gareth Baber paving the way for Gareth Wyatt.

That was as nothing compared with the fun and games of five tries in 15 minutes which raised the decibel count to new levels. Nor was it knockabout rugby, with all the scores bearing a smack of quality. With 20 minutes gone, Wyatt and Owen neatly set up Gethin Jenkins, who fairly stormed over with Davey's conversion making it 14-0.

Shaken and a little stirred, Irish tapped a penalty in the shadow of the Ponty posts and manouevred Eddie Halvey over in space at the right corner. At the other end, Mefin Davies was driven over by his forwards after Davey's penalty kick to touch and Kelly's tap-down, but back came Irish with Kirke rounding off a snappy series of close-quarter drives. Venter then sniped through a gap, Sweeney having been charged down, and Michael Horak went over.

With Davey and Everitt taking each of the conversion chances, that made it 21-21 after 35 breathless minutes.

Davey's goal-kicking had accounted for Cardiff in a recent Principality Cup semi-final, and Ponty trusted to their full-back's boot in the second half. Two penalties from three attempts sailed over to make it 30-21, but with all hands to the Ponty pumps, a misguided knee by Danaher into a ruck undermined the Exiles' cause.

When the same player conceded a penalty which Davey landed from 35 metres, the two-score advantage was too much for Irish, and Everitt's second penalty four minutes from time was in vain.

London Irish: M Horak; P Sackey, G Appleford, B Venter, J Bishop; B Everitt, H Martens (D Edwards, 38); N Hatley (D Wheatley, 48), R Kirke (N Drotske, 44), S Halford, R Strudwick (capt), S Williams (G Delaney, 13), E Halvey, C Sheasby, D Danaher.

Pontypridd: B Davey; G Wyatt, S Parker, J Bryant, G Baber; C Sweeney, P John (capt); G Jenkins, M Davies, D Bell, B Cockbain, R Sidoli, N Kelly (D McIntosh 71), M Owen, R Parks.

Referee: R Dickson (Scotland).

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