Full-time: London Irish 19 Saracens 28By Alan Manicom
April 13, 2012
Two tries from Delon Armitage failed to save London Irish from crashing to a seventh consecutive Aviva Premiership defeat.
Exiles started the brighter side with full-back Tom Homer kicking three penalties in the opening 18 minutes to forge a 9-3 lead, Saracens replying with a drop goal by fly-half Charlie Hodgson.
And Irish will be unhappy that they only went in 14-12 up at half-time.
Armitage sprinted onto a fine pass by Jonathan Joseph to score in the corner, but that try was sandwiched between three penalties by Hodgson, who finished the match with 23 points.
Saracens, though, improved their discipline, denying Homer any further penalty kicks.
And after the break it was Irish who incurred the wrath of referee Martin Fox.
Exiles had been pinned in their own half when flanker Jamie Gibson was sinbinned in the 52nd minute after being off his feet at a ruck and not releasing.
Head coach Toby Booth said: "I think (the yellow card) was an accumulation of what had gone before.
"When you are struggling for results players get a little over zealous in wanting to win.
"Sometimes that clouds decision-making.
"I don't think it was cynical play by Jamie Gibson."
Booth said that Irish had spoken at half-time about the need to heed a warning from the referee about staying disciplined, adding: "So that was a very disappointing outcome.
But he conceded: "That first period of the second half was very difficult for us.
"We didn't get into their half whatsoever."
Hodgson punished Gibson's transgression by edging Saracens ahead from the penalty and then converted a try by Will Fraser following a forward drive.
Within minutes of Gibson returning to action from the sinbin, Irish had struck back.
Armitage pounced on a pass by Bryn Evans and showed power and pace to skip past three Saracens players before diving over to reduce the deficit to 22-19.
But for the second time Homer missed a difficult conversion kick.
Hodgson sent over his fifth penalty to stretch Saracens' lead with 10 minutes left.
But almost immediately afterwards Sarries had Fraser sinbinned for taking out Homer in the air as the Exiles full-back collected a high ball.
With the extra man now in their favour, Irish worked hard to get in front of Sarries' posts only to give away a penalty after a scrum had been reset for a third time.
Hodgson then added a drop goal in the penultimate minute of the match to deny Irish even the consolation of a losing bonus point.
Director of rugby Brian Smith said: "Charlie dropping that goal at the end and us coming away with nothing was a bit of a knife through the heart.
"Saracens are champions of England, but 75 minutes into the contest we were in a situation where we could win the game with a field scrum hot on their try line.
"We had the momentum and were pretty confident we could have converted that into a try.
"If there is a key position that you want to be then centrefield scrum in the opposition 22 is a good position to convert.
"That was the time to strike, so it was a good decision to stick the ball in the corner.
"It was the right call from the coaches to get that message out there and then we manufactured a situation that could have won us the game.
"But that has been the story of our last three encounters.
"The last five minutes we have not managed well in the last three weeks.
"We have to make sure that as a squad we keep our chins up and understand that as a squad there is a lot of things that we are doing right.
"But closing out games is not one of them.
"We have to make sure that we are good enough in our last two games to finish strong in the last five minutes.
"We have been a little bit unlucky but Saracens are a good side and clinical and have a fair bit of class in that squad."
Booth agreed: "We got ourselves back into it and there was an opportunity to kick on.
"But, as Brian said, I think a little bit of class in key positions told."
Booth praised the contribution of Armitage, who is reportedly joining Toulon in the summer on a three-year deal, saying: ""Delon is a very good finisher.
"We are seeing the signs of recovery from him as an individual and the team has benefitted from that.
"That's great because we want to finish the last two games as strong as we can with players in form.
"Delon still had quite a lot to do when he received the ball for his two tries.
"I am pleased for him and it is encouraging for the boys around him that he is hitting that vein of form."
Armitage, who has played most of his career at full-back, was selected on the right wing.
And Booth said: "Saracens kick the ball a lot, put extreme pressure on you and see if you can deal with it.
"It seemed pretty sensible to play with two full-backs in the back three.
"For the most part that was effective."
Homer is now the holder of Exiles' No. 15 shirt and when asked if the 22-year-old was ready for the international stage, Booth said: "If England want a metronomic kicker.
"But people forget how old he is.
"He is learning elements of the game at full-back and he has played in a variety of positions that will set him up well for the international recognition that I am sure will come his way, whether it is this year or in the future.
"We are working with Tommy to develop his all-round game so he has the attacking running threat and the kicking threat.
"He is a very good defender, very decent under the high ball. His aerial skills are good.
"He just needs to look at those skill sets and the decisions he makes around him at full-back and then he will be the complete package."
"Everyone loves goalkickers, and if they are not your No. 10, that is an added bonus.
"Being an 85-per-cent goalkicker is not to be sniffed at."
Irish remain in ninth place with a trip to Worcester Warriors and a home game against Gloucester remaining.
But they are eight points behind sixth-placed Sale Sharks, who occupy the last Heineken Cup qualification slot.
And even bonus-point wins in both their last two matches is unlikely to be enough to secure Irish's participation in Europe's premier competition next season.
To see how it unfolded click below:
Alex Corbisiero, aged 23, became the youngest player to captain Irish in the professional era.
He was joined in the front row by fellow prop Faan Rautenbach, one of five changes to the side that started their 18-11 defeat at Exeter Chiefs a fortnight ago.
Also drafted into the pack were Ofisa Treviranus and Richard Thorpe for Declan Danaher and Nick Kennedy.
Delon Armitage takes over from Marland Yarde on the right wing, while Jonathan Joseph comes into the centre for Steven Shingler.
Saracens, who gained their first win at Madejski Stadium for five years, made four changes to the team that began their 22-3 home defeat by Clermont in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals last week.
In the forwards George Kruis and Jackson Wray took over from Mouritz Botha and Justin Melck.
In the backs Neil de Kock and Michael Tagicakibau came in for Richard Wigglesworth and the injured Owen Farrell.
London Irish: 15 Tom Homer, 14 Delon Armitage, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Joe Ansbro, 11 Sailosi Tagicakibau, 10 Adrian Jarvis, 9 Darren Allinson, 8 Ofisa Treviranus, 7 Richard Thorpe, 6 Jamie Gibson, 5 Matt Garvey, 4 Bryn Evans, 3 Faan Rautenbach, 2 David Paice, 1 Alex Corbisiero (c).
Replacements: 16 James Buckland, 17 Max Lahiff, 18 Leo Halavatau, 19 Jebb Sinclair, 20 Alex Gray, 21 Topsy Ojo, 22 Steve Shingler, 23 Ross Samson.
Saracens: 15 Alex Goode, 14 David Strettle, 13 Chris Wyles, 12 Brad Barritt, 11 Michael Tagicakibau, 10 Charlie Hodgson, 9 Neil de Kock, 8 Ernst Joubert, 7 Will Fraser, 6 Jackson Wray, 5 George Kruis, 4 Steve Borthwick (c), 3 Matt Stevens, 2 Schalk Brits, 1 Rhys Gill.
Replacements: 16 Jamie George, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Carlos Nieto, 19 Mouritz Botha, 20 Justin Melck, 21 Richard Wigglesworth, 22 Adam Powell, 23 Joel Tomkins.