In a war which demands so much of you throughout the season, London Irish won the first battle and gained first blood. The performance was so convincing and passionate that you wouldn’t put it past Nick Kennedy and his team of young coaches guiding the Exiles to mid-table. Josh Bartholomew analyses the morale boosting London Irish victory in Round One.
Having been treated to a high-scoring curtain raiser, the merry London Double-header crowd were expecting tries from one of the more exciting back-lines in the division, but it took a while for Harlequins to get going.
Irish started the stronger, though their attacking play was initially fairly lateral, but Quins’ indiscipline allowed Tommy Bell to open the Exiles’ 2017/18 account with a penalty after four minutes. The former Leicester play-maker added another three points just minutes later, and after seven minutes of their Premiership campaign, Irish led 6-0.
But exciting teenager Marcus Smith was helping his star-studded backline express themselves, and after holding off some fast Harlequins attacks, Irish were staring at the fly-half open up his own Premiership points tally, and make the score 6-3.
London Irish were struggling to get out of their own half, and despite strong defensive work from the men in green, Harlequins were looking ominous. But while a knock-on advantage was being played, Kiwi fly-half James Marshall chipped the ball to Topsy Ojo. The veteran undertook a speedy run down the wing, with a cute pass inside to Fergus Mulchrone before the centre returned the favour, and Ojo showed his delight as he sprinted over the whitewash.
A matter of minutes later, Tommy Bell crossed after a wonderful offload from Scotland flanker Blair Cowan. Bell scythed through the Quins defence with apparent ease, selling Danny Care, before out-sprinting Mike Brown to the try line. The Exiles led 18-3 in their Premiership rebirth.
Throughout this, Irish were defending with ballast, their green wall spearheaded by flankers Coman and omni-present Cowan. Despite this, Harlequins had been threatening with their backline off the line out throughout the first half, and it was no surprise when Joe Marchant sprinted between the sticks, despite the hint of a forward pass. Smith converted without the need for a kicking-tee.
After the standard Irish dancing at half-time (I’m sure it was missed on the Exiles’ season away), the superfluous Bell kept the scoreboard moving with a penalty, before playing his part in a flowing move which resulted in Ofisa Treviranus diving over for a five-pointer. Irish led 29-10, but the minutes that followed saw them revert to London Irish stereotype.
David Paice later said that the speed of the game had seen them lose energy, and this further highlights the Irish need for a strong bench. Despite the likes of Ben Franks, Gordon Reid and Brendan Mckibbin playing as replacements, the Exiles still appeared ominously weak towards the end of the match.
In a helter-skelter final quarter, Quins scored three times through Marland Yarde, Danny Care and Charlie Walker, but a Tommy Bell penalty before Walker went under the posts meant Irish looked good for a victory with just minutes to play, albeit a very minimal one. But Harlequins were throwing the ball around as they had to, and fan-favourite Brendan Mckibbin dived over in the corner to send the green sections of the crowd into pandemonium.
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