London Irish blog: Unforgettable FridayBy The Mad Monk
August 09, 2012
There are some days you never forget. Last Friday was one such. I confess I drove down the M4 more in hope than expectation.
Having lost our opening game to Quins in the JP Morgan sevens tournament three weeks ago, the boys realised they were not playing 15s, picked up the pace against a weak Wasps side then beat Saracens to finish second and book a place in the final.
Team selection certainly showed that Brian Smith was taking this competition seriously.
It is a high risk strategy, balancing the benefit of developing a winning mentality against possible injury to key players. It just about paid off. Losi picked up a knock in the opening round, so was not risked last Friday.
Just about everyone else was. Brian was putting his money where his mouth is.
A week later in the Northern round London Welsh took Newcastle's place at short notice.
They were given dispensation to 'go to the markets' to field a competitive side and came back with a bunch of sevens mercenaries, most from the highly regarded Samurais.
The ease with which they dispatched Sale and the East Midland clubs threatened to take any legitimacy from the title. This was meant to be a pre-season run-around for 15-a-side players, not part of the sevens circuit.
To make matters worse, Irish were drawn against them in their opening game. The finals format is two mini pools of three. The two pool toppers play off in the final. Any mistake for Irish and there was only one other guaranteed game.
Tickets for a game at the Rec are hard to come by at the best of times but arriving for a summer match I could see why it was particularly bad this time.
The temporary stand by the cricket pitches had been dismantled reducing an already limited capacity by a third.
I waited nervously while I watched our first round pool winners Saracens dispatch Sale.
Next Welsh exiles ran out against the Irish exiles. Irish started as they did against Quins.
There are not enough players in Sevens to take the ball to ground with any certainty of recycling. The Samurai are masters of the smother tackle making the offload difficult and then driving through when the ball carrier is forced to go to ground.
As a result Irish finished on the wrong end of a 29-17 scoreline.
They then had to sit out three games before putting hard earned lessons to the test against hosts Bath.
Sale came on against Gloucester in a much closer game. All square going into the final two minutes the tractor boys ran in a late try to open their bid for the final.
The next game proved to be crucial to London Irish hopes. All Welsh needed to do was beat hosts Bath and our game against them becomes a dead rubber. Surprisingly Bath came storming out determined to put on a good show in front of their home supporters.
Two early tries put them comfortably ahead, and we waited for the Welsh to show their sevens experience. Surprisingly it never happened and by half time Bath were 24-7 up. Even more surprising for a game of sevens, neither side added to the score in the second half.
This has handed a lifeline to Irish. Both the other sides in their pool are played two, won one. All Irish have to do is beat Bath convincingly and hope bonus points and points difference favour them. Yes but this is agains a side who have just convincingly beaten a side that comfortably beat them.
Somehow, and strangely, this seems more likely that beating Welsh.
Gloucester play another close match against Saracens. 15-12 is low scoring for sevens, but it is in Gloucester's favour and they are the only club to win both their pool matches and take the first final place.
Crunch time. I brave the wrath of the stewards and move to the walkway at the front. The first try goes to Irish, great start! When they score again I am getting quite excited. By the time we have run in three I am apoplectic. Inevitably Bath strike back.
Frustration sets in when they claw back another just before half time. It looked like a knock on. Certainly Marland was unhappy enough to ask for 'clarification' from the ref. Second half, and it will not be enough to ease through for a win.
A bonus point try is the first requirement, then build on the points difference and hope it is enough.
There is a long injury break early in the second half. When the Bath player is finally honoured in the conventional way and has left the field, Marland expunges his frustration of the Bath score by running the length of the pitch to dot down the bonus point try. When this is followed up by one from JJ the neutrals around us start supporting Irish.
A final score at the death gives a final score of 38-14.
The excitement is too much for me, and I cannot do the Maths. Frantic texts: are we through? Finally the answer comes back: YES!!! There is a short break.
Toby's favourite expression is "leave nothing on the field" whether that has got through to his new club I do not know, but his old one had to pour everything into their match against Bath.
Keep something back and they would have been pipped on points difference, and there would have been nothing to hold back for. Now they had to come straight back for a ten minutes each way final against a Gloucester side who had not played in the last two matches.
Irish however have become something on a nemesis for the tractor boys in the fifteens game, humiliating them in the final game of last season. Add to that this evening.
Gloucester had won both their games, but not convincingly. Irish had slipped up against Welsh, but put in a blistering performance against Bath.
The tide was turning in favour of the Exiles. The ace in Gloucester's hand is fatigue.
They are rested, Irish must come out and do it all again.
Tom Homer put Marland in for an opening try and a perfect start for Irish.
From that point things unravelled. Gloucester hit back against a visibly exhausted Irish side and by half time the writing was on the wall. A half time score of 28-5 should be unassailable whether it fifteens, or the cut down version.
There are few clubs that refuse to accept defeat when it stares them this hard in the face, and they tend to be based in the East Midlands.
At London Irish we are familiar with skill and fitness levels equal to any club in the league, until now these have come with an Achilles heal: the ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Something has changed.
Those who have survived the wholesale changes directed by Brian Smith have been given this final magic potion.
A side that should have been dead on their feet squared up to the mystical 23 point half time deficit, accepted as being the point of no return.
It is hard to credit one person with what happened in the next ten minutes. Losi, the acting coach for the evening may have added to Brian Smith's motivational speech.
Certainly Alex Gray played a captain's role in the essential first step when JJ put him in for the first try of the second half. From then on Joseph was everywhere.
Inexorably the scoreboard ticked in Irish's favour bringing them back to a tantalising 28-26.
The scoreboard may have been the Exile's friend, but the clock was not, even playing twenty minutes not fourteen.
It looked all over when Clark crossed for Gloucester. Step forward an unlikely hero. Jack Moates, third string scrum half on loan to London Welsh for the whole of last season covered across, Clark spent too long dotting down and Moates turned him in a text book tackle preventing the grounding.
When the TMO confirmed no try the fairy tale ending was set up. In the dying seconds Jo Ansbro was sent over in the corner. With seconds left, and his eye on the clock Marland shaped up for the conversion, as the clock reached zero he sent the ball wide of the posts up into the Thatcher terrace. It didn't matter, Irish had won!