London Irish lost 15-20 to Newcastle in a scrappy game that almost seals their relegation. Two Alex Tait tries, as well as one from Vereniki Goneva were counteracted by five Greig Tonks penalties, but it wasn’t enough for the Exiles.
Two years ago, almost to the day, London Irish and Newcastle faced off at the Madejski Stadium in a bid to avoid relegation. This time, it was another crucial match at the bottom of the table, but it was only important for Irish. Newcastle and London Irish are both small clubs, yet traditional English rugby powerhouses. The similarities continue, as both teams have slipped down the table in recent years. Newcastle, having avoided relegation at the expense of Irish in 2015/16, have been revived under Dean Richards’ stewardship, and are a side two years further on in their development than London Irish.
Though the Exiles took the lead through Greig Tonks, and led 6-3 after 20 minutes, they went in at the break 9-20 down. There were many promising signs in the early stages for Nick Kennedy, including one immense defensive set where Newcastle were driven back to the half-way line. Sadly, when Irish needed some luck, without a win at the Madejski since March 2016, they got just the opposite.
Having stolen the ball inside their own 22, Tom Fowlie prepared to kick the ball downfield, where there was a wealth of green space for Alex Lewington to run onto. Luck wasn’t on the Irish side, though, and Alex Tait was able to charge the kick down, and run into an empty dead ball zone.
Three minutes later, Falcons scrum-half Sonatane Takalua launched a trademark break from his own half, after a disappointing missed tackle from Scotland full-back Greig Tonks. The ball was recycled quickly (something Irish fans can only dream of!), and Juan Pablo Socino kicked the ball into an empty right corner for Tait to score his second.
Irish were clearly down, but not quite out, though that would change when Vereniki Goneva scored his sides’ third try on half-time. Once again, luck went against the Exiles, as Toby Flood’s penalty rebounded off the post, and Johnny Williams was forced to give away a five-meter-scrum. The Falcons spun the ball out to the wing, where Goneva was able to score in the corner, and put the game out of Irish hands.
Nick Kennedy had some job to revive a luckless Irish side, who’d also lost captain Mike Coman to the sin-bin just before the interval, but he managed to do so, as the Exiles came out from the break with startling intensity.
But the Falcons were still getting the rub of the green, as Irish centre Fowlie was stopped from scoring an interception try after referee Tom Foley decided Alex Lewington had knocked-on in the previous ruck.
Irish weren’t helping themselves, as countless attacking positions were wasted through indecision, and simple errors prevented them from building on such territory.
Tonks managed to set up a grandstand finish with his fifth penalty just minutes from time, though going the length of the field always looked difficult for a side that had struggled in attack all season, and so it proved, as the Falcons defence held strong to win at the Madejski for the first time since 2009.
The defeat was a heavy blow for an Irish side that remain 10 points off safety, with few remaining games to stamp their authority on a campaign that has lacked nous, direction and quality.
The Madejski Stadium is often criticised for lacking atmosphere, but this wasn’t the case today, as the 10,019 strong home crowd roared their side through every scrum, line-out and defensive set, but it was to no avail.
Gary Graham, playing the day after his inaugural England call-up, appears to be in the James Haskell mould, not the attacking openside that Eddie Jones craves. The Falcons flanker worked through tackle after tackle at the Madejski, and helped drive a struggling Irish attack backwards. After the game, Dean Richards talked of his inclusion: “He’s played well this year. I’m disappointed for Mark Wilson to miss out, but I’m pleased for Gary all the same.”
His Newcastle side now found themselves sixth, level on points with Bath, and a Champions Cup place next season looks very achievable.
Irish now face a close to impossible task to secure safety, with a resurgent Worcester side proving to be a threat to most teams in the league.