It was not the best of days for London Irish. Not only did they lose their inspirational player-coach, Brendan Venter, but they also crashed to defeat against an organised and skilful Leeds side.
Defeat leaves London Irish precariously placed and they now have to glean enough points from their remaining two Zurich Premiership matches without the on-field services of Venter, who hobbled off in the fourth minute with medial ligament damage to his left knee, an injury that brings to a premature close his playing career.
He had already announced he would be retiring at the end of the season, but his departure yesterday knocked the stuffing out of Exiles and left a gaping hole in the midfield.
In contrast Leeds, bottom last year, have climbed to fourth, thus qualifying for an automatic Heineken Cup place next season. "If we had finished 11th this season that would have been progress," said the Leeds director of rugby, Phil Davies."But we have managed to do a little bit better. But there is still a lot of hard work to do.''
But not as much as is confronting Irish, although to be fair, few teams could have lived with a rampant Leeds side in the first-half when they staged a stunning handling show as they thundered into a 16-point lead before the interval.
At least Irish re-emerged more resolute and assured. Paul Sackey scored his 10th try of the season and although Mark Mapletoft, who had replaced the ineffectual Barry Everitt at half-time, missed the conversion, he still knocked over a couple of penalties to keep Exile hopes alive.
But it was not enough to cancel out Leeds great early work. Their outstanding try followed one spellbinding period when the ball went through perhaps a dozen phases and some 40 passes, the last one to Alan Dickens who scurried through to score. Gordon Ross, who had taken over the kicking duties after a dazed Braam van Straaten was led off midway through the first-half, converted the try and that, with a brace of penalties and a drop goal, looked enough.
Perhaps Leeds sat back a little, but just when the home side threatened to wrest the lead from them late in the game Leeds opened up again, the powerful Samoan George Harder breaking upfield and paving the way for a well-taken try by the lock Chris Murphy. Ross capped it with the conversion.
London Irish: Try Sackey; Penalties Everitt, Mapletoft 2; Leeds: Tries Dickens, Murphy; Conversions Ross 2; Penalties: Van Straaten, Ross 2; Drop Goal: Ross.
London Irish: M Horak; P Sackey, N Burrows, B Venter (K Barratt, 4), G Appleford (M Mapletoft, 13-18); B Everitt (M Mapletoft, h-t), D Edwards; M Worsley (N Hatley, 47), N Drotske (A Flavin, h-t), R Hardwick (S Halford, 47), R Strudwick (capt), R Casey, D Danaher, C Sheasby, K Dawson.
Leeds: D Albanese; G Harder, T Davies, B van Straaten (W Stanley, 25), C Hall; G Ross, A Dickens (D Heggarty, 78); M Shelley (capt), M Regan (R Rawlinson, 57), M Holt (G Kerr, 57), C Murphy, T Palmer, C Mather, A Popham, D Hyde (I Feau'nati, 15-28 and 54).
Referee: D Pearson (Northumberland).
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