London Irish 33-16 Saracens, Aviva Premiership, September 4
Fired-up Exiles stun Saracens
September 4, 2010
Topsy Ojo rises highest for London Irish
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London Irish got their Aviva Premiership season off to a flying start with a thrilling 33-16 victory over Saracens in the London Double Header at Twickenham on Saturday.
A stirring fightback saw Toby Booth's Exiles overturn a half-time deficit and inflict back-to-back Twickenham defeats on Saracens, who suffered last-minute heartbreak against Leicester in last season's final.
Delon Armitage and Sailosi Tagicakibau both scored in an exhilarating burst just after half-time and victory was secured when a penalty try was awarded for Kevin Barrett's push on Topsy Ojo as the Exiles wing attempted to gather a chip ahead. Ojo then dusted himself off to score the bonus-point try with the final play of the game.
Barrett saw one of four yellow cards, with each one proving to be a turning point. Saracens had forged ahead with tries to South African duo Ernst Joubert and Schalk Brits, with Derick Hougaard chipping in with two penalties after an errant display from the tee by starting fly-half Alex Goode.
The opening 20 minutes of the game remained scoreless thanks to a combination of Ryan Lamb's inaccurate boot and Saracens' fired-up defence. Irish dominated both possession and territory, forcing their white-clad opponents to concede a string of penalties, but despite punching several holes close to the line they were unable to reward their attacking ambition with points.
Lamb shanked his first penalty attempt short and wide before missing a shot to touch and his malaise soon spread to Daniel Bowden, the Exiles' big summer signing. The former Highlanders and Crusaders centre was guilty of slipping off Brad Barritt in a vital midfield tackle, allowing the Saxons centre a glimpse of the line before he was scythed down by the pugnacious Paul Hodgson.
Armitage, so subdued last season, enjoyed a productive start to the game before seeing yellow for a high tackle on Brits as the former Springbok hooker sent Noah Cato scuttling along the touchline. It didn't take Saracens long to make their numerical advantage tell and Brits played a pivotal role in Joubert's opening score.
Quick ball to the hooker allowed him to free his arms close to the line and with fullback Chris Wyles producing a superb first-time offload Joubert had the easiest of run-ins at the corner. Goode missed the conversion and the Exiles were immediately back within two as Lamb found his range from the tee.
There was a brutal mix of pace and power for Saracens' second try and again it was the South African axis of Brits and Joubert who did the damage. Joubert burst clear from the base of a scrum outside the Irish 22 and after Hodgson had hauled him to the earth a series of drives from the tight-five allowed Brits the space to barrel over, through the tackle of Armitage. Lamb's second penalty was quick to follow and ensured that Irish were within touching distance at the break, Goode having missed his conversion.
The gap was narrowed to a point four minutes after the resumption, but the Exiles had high hopes of a try before Lamb converted his third penalty opportunity. Armitage had carved Saracens apart in midfield to set them on their way and Bowden, showing the playmaking skills which made him such an attractive prospect, spread the play wide with a stunning long pass. Ojo pinned his ears back and was halted just short, where Goode interfered with a Lamb pass to earn 10 minutes in the bin.
London Irish fullback Delon Armitage reflects on his side's win%]
While their fly-half kicked his heels, Saracens slipped behind for the first time in the game as Armitage bagged a cathartic try, the first in a quick-fire brace for the Exiles. He added the rapier to his pack's broadsword, skipping over out wide off a pass from his brother, Steffon, who also played a major role in Tagicakibau's score seconds later. His pop pass set the increasingly-influential Bowden galloping into space and Lamb gleefully picked out his winger with a perfectly-weighted cross kick after Hodgson had quickly recycled possession.
Brendan Venter shuffled his deck as Goode's sin-bin ended, sending the Saxons playmaker to fullback and bringing on former Bulls' pivot Hougaard at No.10. Hougaard immediately took over the kicking duties and banged over three points in response to Irish's blitz. His next penalty accompanied the game's third yellow card, which was shown to Hodgson after he ended a Barritt break with a cynical knock-on.
Referee Andrew Small's fourth reach for his pocket was aided by the TMO, who was called in to adjudicate when Barrett shoved Ojo across the try-line with the ball inches from his grasp. Barrett trotted from the field and Lamb knocked over the simplest of conversions for the penalty try.
Ojo eventually got his try in the game's dying seconds but it was a Keystone Cops affair as he and Declan Danaher chased a bobbling ball. There was however no sense of embarrassment for the men in green, who were worthy winners against much-fancied opposition.
Huw Baines is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
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