Ryan Lamb kicked London Irish to the top of the Guinness Premiership with a superb six penalty goals. Irish knew victory over the reigning champions would hoist them into top spot, if only for 24 hours.
That possibility, allied with the memory of their last clash, Leicester’s 10-9 title-winning triumph in the Twickenham final in May, contributed to the sizeable 16,199 crowd. And while no classic as a spectacle, the game was hard, fast and at times furious with Irish deserved winners over the 80 minutes.
England manager Martin Johnson came to watch six members of his Elite Player Squad on parade, and he saw Irish make the early running, pinning Leicester back to defend a fierce charge for the line by openside Steffon Armitage. Johnson’s spirits must have nosedived after only five minutes as veteran Leicester tighthead, Julian White, 36, limped out of the game after injuring his right ankle.
If fit, White is in the frame to face Australia at Twickenham on November 7, replacing Phil Vickery who has undergone neck surgery. His replacement, Martin Castrogiovanni, conceded a penalty after 11 minutes when he popped up in a strong Irish scrum-drive, but Lamb’s penalty was scuffed hopelessly and bobbled dead.
Irish paid for failing to turn early pressure into points when Leicester edged in front after 16 minutes with a penalty, scored by Jeremy Staunton. But the Leicester scrum was struggling and it was Castrogiovanni at fault again on 19 minutes. This time Lamb made no mistake, arrowing his penalty kick bang on target to equalise.
Leicester launched their most sustained assault on the Irish line immediately, and Irish had to produce their most focused defence within their 22 for seven minutes before Lucas Amorosino lost possession under pressure. Irish charged back upfield, Armitage was pulled back off the ball by Jordan Crane, and while the Irish flanker went down theatrically, referee Wayne Barnes awarded the penalty and Lamb rifled them ahead on the half-hour.
Irish wing Sailosi Tagicakibau forced his way over the goal line left of the posts after 34 minutes, but the score was disallowed because Lamb’s long pass was deemed to have gone forward. Leicester were under the cosh approaching half time as Irish ran a penalty deep into the danger zone. The ball was killed on the ground by Crane, and Lamb increased the lead to 9-3 with his third goal.
Staunton’s second penalty, two minutes into the second half, gave his team a flying return to the action, but Leicester wasted the opportunity to establish a foothold, conceding another penalty two minutes later and Lamb did the honours.
Staunton turned saviour in the 50th minute, scrambling the ball into touch on the left as Peter Hewat threatened to score a try in pursuit of his own hack-on from a charge-down. And five minutes later, Staunton’s third goal punished Irish prop Paulica Ion for straying offside.
The battle for the England openside jersey ensured that Armitage v Moody remained a ferocious contest, until Moody found himself in the sin-bin in the 67th minute for a double offence – breaking off a scrum too soon then tugging back Paul Hodgson.
Lamb again struck gold with his penalty, and his excellent passing-game proved the biggest threat to the champions, and more than once a poor final ball from his team-mates was all that stood between Irish and a try. But it was Leicester who scored the next points, replacement scrum-half Ben Youngs kicking a 71st-minute penalty in place of the hobbling Staunton.
Irish were not to be denied, and up stepped the ice-cool Lamb to score his sixth goal six minutes from time.