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Thursday, March 17, 2016

Reflections On London Irish vs. Saracens

By Brendan Triplett
@brendanUSArugby

When the battle had ended and the dust had settled the Sarries walked away from the pitch securing a welcome four points to maintain their position at the top of the Premiership Table with a final score of 26-16 over London Irish.  The Exiles, fought bravely in a match that looked as though it were set up for them to walk away with a win.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, in front of a crowd of 14,811 fans the “home team” Irish stormed the pitch and used their newly acquired weapon in Greig Tonks to hit the scoreboard early with a slotted penalty.  Despite the punched-through try of Saracen’s Alex Goode and the subsequent conversion by Ben Spencer, they held a strong control of the first half and took advantage of the apparent weaknesses left in the Saracen’s team.  At the sound of the half, a Try from Alex Lewington and the near-perfect boot of Greig Tonks held them securely ahead with a score of 13-7.  It was the perfect start to match against a team on the extreme opposite of the table, you will remember that Sarries are in first place and the Irish are in last in the Premiership standings.  The roars of the crowd, the sight of “Dugger,” and the ever present “Come on you Irish” kept them battling forward, pressing phase after phase into a crumbling Saracen defense.

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However, like all dreams, it was not to last.  The second half, led by an awe-inspiring Alex Goode, took the team from their pedestal and watched the Irish as they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.  20 minutes into the second half and with nine unanswered points, Greig Tonks guided one more penalty through the uprights to tie up the game 16-16 before it was quickly answered by Alex Goode’s boot, 16-19 Sarries.  This would be the last that the Irish would come close enough to fight through for points.

The last minutes of the match seemed like an act of desperation, after Tonk’s missed penalty to even the scoreboard, as the Irish played open ball and after being pushed back into their own 22, Darren Allinson attempted to clear for better position.  With only moments to go Nick Tompkins raced into his path and blocked the clearance, knocking the ball backward, before recovering it and trotting it in for an aerial Try in the corner.  Alex Goode slotted the conversion and broke the hearts of every Exile fan in the Arena as their chances for a losing bonus point were snuffed.

The final score showed just how strong the Saracens are and why London Irish need to do a lot more work, especially for a team hearing the whispers of relegation and the footsteps of other teams wishing to take their place.

Alex Goode was, of course, was the man of the match and the Director of Saracens rugby, Mark McCall, recognized this saying, “He was the shining light out there today… even in the first half when we were very poor he provided all of the moments that really mattered for us.  In the second half when we moved him up to fly-half he controlled things and kept the ball in front of the forwards and guided us to victory.  He was really important for us.”  After being released from the England team, Goode showed good form on the pitch weaving his way through the Irish and showing the veterans and newcomers to the sport alike what it is like to have a player of national team caliber, in the fray.

London Irish Head Coach, Tom Coventry, expressed disappointment at the result but saw the weaknesses in the team that deserve work.  “In the second spell we gave away three pretty cheap penalties that allowed Saracens to get themselves in front and then get a hold at the end, but that’s been the story of our season hasn’t it.”  There really can’t be a better way to express this as we have seen Irish lose several matches in the second half.  One could argue that they are getting better and they fought well in the game, which they did, but Saracens came in with a weakened team, having several of their players out for Six Nations, suspensions, etc., and Irish just couldn’t finish.  Games are won and lost in the last minutes of the game and despite the valiant effort they just came up short.  As for the players, Coventry said that even though the team was feeling down for now, there were several reasons to stay positive.  Among them were the weather, the facilities, being a flagship team to play off of English soil, and to be a part of the fastest growing sport in America.

Mark McCafferty, the CEO of Premiership rugby, and ever-championing of the sport in the U.S. saw this as a great experience.  A three year deal has been a long time in the making but with the showing of fans and sales made, it is expected that the annual game will sell out by 2018.  “I think we will have made our mark (selling out the stadium in 2018) but between now and then we still have a load of work to do,” McCafferty said.  The teams both having done work with local youth clubs, corporate sponsors, and the media is a major positive for the sport and McCafferty goes on to say, “It is a credit to them and I applaud them for that because it is always challenging to be the first out of blocks to do these sort of things and they’ve embraced them.  The agreement to sign with NBC is unbelievable news for us and a great platform for club rugby in the states.”  It seems as though the sport will continue to grow and there was nothing but positives about the venue, the area, and the coverage of the match.  This confirmed by the fact that McCafferty mentioned that they had met attendance projections and exceeded their numbers in every other part of the event.

The event is a London Irish “home” fixture and it is not lost on the Premiership that relegation could play a part in future of the stateside match.  The original deal was made with London Irish but was made contingent upon the team being an active part of the Premiership.  In the event that they are relegated another team would simply fall into the slot, as many other teams have already shown interest in playing in the U.S.

Overall, the event was a success for both teams despite the result for the Irish.  Mark McCafferty continues to promote the sport here in the U.S. and with his effort and the solid gameplay we can now look forward to from the Premiership, I think we can safely look at this to be an annual event long surpassing the current three-year deal.  McCafferty said this in closing, “The U.S. is falling more and more in love with rugby, we are doing our part, the (USA) Eagles are doing their part.  A number of games have been over here for the All Blacks and Ireland coming as well, and it’s just a good time for rugby.”  I couldn’t have said it better myself.  Ruck on.

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