London Irish avoided a fourth successive GUINNESS PREMIERSHIP defeat after staging an immense fightback to deny play-off rivals Bath victory at the Recreation Ground.
Bath, unbeaten at home since early October, left Irish reeling through first-half tries from lock Stuart Hooper, wing Matt Banahan and full-back Joe Maddock. At 17-0 adrift, there appeared no way back for the Exiles, who spent most of a one-sided opening period in reverse gear.
Bath’s slick handling skills and tireless support work underpinned their healthy advantage, and they looked to have done enough. But Irish had other ideas, slashing the deficit to four points after wing Adam Thompstone and centre Seilala Mapusua scored tries either side of a Shane Geraghty penalty.
A succession of unforced Bath errors contributed to making it a far more even encounter after the break, and the home side required a 68th-minute Butch James penalty to calm their nerves. But it proved a brief respite, as Irish’s England international wing Topsy Ojo struck 10 minutes from time, leaving the Bath defence for dead during a weaving 30-metre run. Geraghty added the extras, making it 20-20 to set up a nerve-shredding finale as both sides went for broke, but Bath were denied despite dominating late territory.
Bath went into battle without skipper Michael Lipman, who has not played since suffering a head injury against Heineken Cup opponents Toulouse four weeks ago, so centre Alex Crockett captained the side. Irish, meanwhile, fielded England internationals Geraghty, Paul Hodgson and Steffon Armitage as they looked to get their title play-off bid back on track. But Bath exerted a stranglehold from kick-off, pinning Irish inside their own 22 and then making it pay with three tries during the opening 31 minutes.
Bath’s impressive recycling game meant Irish exerted all hands to the pump in defence, and it was only a matter of time before they caved in. Hooper claimed the opening try following powerful approach work by England Saxons wing Banahan, then Bath doubled their lead courtesy of an initial rumble by prop David Flatman. Flatman charged to within sight of Irish’s posts, and after the supporting Hooper was held up, Banahan enjoyed a luxury of touching down with two unmarked team-mates outside him.
Irish appeared a shadow of the side that ripped Newcastle apart when then they last recorded a Premiership victory seven weeks ago, and Bath quickly moved further clear. Ojo got an attempted defensive clearance horribly wrong, booting the ball straight into heavy midfield traffic, and neat link work between Banahan and Maddock resulted in Maddock crossing.
Fly-half James landed his first successful conversion at the third attempt, and Irish were almost out for the count, 17-0 behind approaching half-time. It proved a miserable opening 40 minutes for the visitors, but head coach Toby Booth’s half-time lecture produced a rapid return as Irish opened their account after 47 minutes.
Mapusua’s long pass found hooker James Buckland, and he freed Thompstone on an unopposed run to the line. Irish should then have scored again only two minutes later, but Ojo and Buckland could not gather Mapusua’s kick between them, and when possession eventually rolled free, Armitage knocked on with the line at his mercy.
The visitors, though, had served notice of an immediate recovery from their first-half slumber, and Bath needed to re-establish control. Mapusua’s searing angled run and try caused further panic in the Bath ranks, and the home side could not relax even after James’ penalty made it 20-13. Ojo then followed Mapusua’s example by sprinting clear of a leaden-footed Bath defence, with Geraghty’s conversion ensuring an intriguing contest went right to the wire.
Ultimately, neither side could seal the deal, yet Irish will take far greater satisfaction from sharing the spoils, given a landslide defeat they found themselves facing.