Leeds revived their hopes of Aviva Premiership Rugby survival after a rousing fightback saw them dent London Irish’s play-off chances at Headingley.
Irish had led 16-3 after 32 minutes courtesy of a lovely try from centre Seilala Mapusua, a penalty from Chris Malone and eight further points from Ryan Lamb. But Leeds, for whom Hendre Fourie was simply magnificent, responded with tries from Luther Burrell, Daniel Browne and Mike MacDonald to turn the game on its head.
The win moves Neil Back’s basement boys to within seven points of fellow strugglers Newcastle, who had claimed what may yet turn out be a vital win here last weekend. This was only their second league win of the season and the first since parting company with rugby director Andy Key.
A win would have moved Irish into the top four but they instead remain sixth having played two games more than their principal rivals. Leeds were boosted by the availability of England duo Steve Thompson and Fourie, while Adrian Jarvis and Scott Mathie came in at half-back following defeat to the Falcons. Irish made just the one change from victory over Harlequins as Jonathan Joseph came in on the wing.
Given the wretched season Leeds are having it was little surprise when the Exiles assumed control from the first whistle and they quickly took a 6-0 lead inside the opening quarter. A surging run from flanker Jamie Gibson laid the foundations for fly-half Malone to slot the opening three-pointer and, with the Australian having departed through injury, replacement Lamb doubled the advantage after a scrum infringement.
Leeds had by that stage seen their captain Marco Wentzel depart the fray, former All Black Sean Hohneck his second-row replacement, and they then spurned a chance as Henry Fa’afili failed to find a support runner after a Jarvis grubber.
Irish were dominating territory and possession and only some poor offloading from wing Joseph and flanker George Stowers kept them from claiming the opening try, but a third Lamb penalty, after Leeds were carelessly offside chasing a kick, extended the lead.
Leeds had barely visited the away side’s half and it was 25 minutes before they were awarded their first penalty, Jarvis stepping up to put the Yorkshire side on the board. But Irish quickly struck back with a fluent try. Daniel Bowden’s inside pass put wing Topsy Ojo into space and he had the simple task of putting Mapusua over by the posts. Lamb added the extras.
It looked as though Leeds were set to suffer a heavy defeat but they responded immediately as Jarvis’ weighted cross-kick allowed Burrell to cross from their first threatening attack and keep them in the game at the break. Jarvis missed a straightforward chance to land his second penalty before Exiles full-back Tom Homer fell short with a mammoth effort from halfway.
Leeds were enjoying a spell in the ascendancy and it took some excellent work from Ojo to gather another Jarvis grubber, after powerful carrying by flanker Kearnan Myall. But the hosts’ failure to convert pressure into points was punished as Lamb coolly slotted a drop-goal on 57 minutes to once again open up a nine-point lead.
Lamb could have finished the game had he held an intercept chance, and Leeds made the most of that let-off by scoring their second try. Mathie took a penalty quickly in the Irish 22 and Jarvis sent Browne on a battering run to the line, Jarvis adding the extras to make it 19-17.
Irish looked rattled and Leeds’ renewed belief saw them batter away at the Exiles line and, after full-back Michael Stephenson was stopped short, replacement prop MacDonald barged over to put them in front for the first time. Jarvis again added the extras and his late penalty denied Irish a losing bonus point.