Exiles fall short to send Saints through
January 23, 2010
Isa Nacewa scored Leinster's only try
© Getty Images
London Irish fell agonisingly short of upsetting Leinster at Twickenham to book their place in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals, with a last-gasp drop-goal from Jonny Sexton securing an 11-11 draw for the reigning champions.
Chris Malone had earlier scored a try and kicked a high pressure penalty to secure a narrow lead, but their failure means a passage into the last eight for Northampton as the final runner-up. The result also means that Irish finish behind the Scarlets, who beat Brive, in the race for a European Challenge Cup spot. Leinster, meanwhile, can toast a home quarter-final.
Malone showed his kicking variety in the early stages by first pinning Leinster back with a huge kick and then threading a grubber through the champions' rush defence, which was well marshalled by a retreating Rob Kearney.
The first scrum went the way of Leinster, with referee Nigel Owens penalising a wheeling Exiles eight. Sexton calmly slotted the opening points from the kicking tee. Irish continued to press and had the chance to draw level as Leinster's discipline slipped. Malone stepped up but shanked a simple chance to let the visitors off the hook. The fly-half did better with ball in hand soon after, when he drew the defence well and unleashed Topsy Ojo on a brilliant inside angle. The winger was chopped down and as the ball was recycled a poor intervention from Delon Armitage saw the ball bobble into touch.
Leinster hooker Bernard Jackman struggled to deal with the aggressive lineout work of Nick Kennedy and Bob Casey, getting on the wrong side of the referee and also seeing possession picked off by the dangerous Exiles locks.
The Exiles' scrum finally clicked into gear with a powerful nudge on halfway, which allowed Chris Hala'Ufia the chance to power forward. The No.8 was guilty of continuing his side's poor handling by forcing an offload, which went forward harmlessly. Flanker Richard Thorpe was also guilty of a handling error soon after, firing the ball into touch as Kennedy looked for an inside ball.
Jackman was hauled off for John Fogarty as Malone slotted his side's first points as the break approached. Sexton fired a long-range penalty into an upright soon after, with the ball bouncing back into play. Ojo gathered and set off on a loping run, carving a path through the Leinster defence. The wing's final pass was forced, going forward and handing an attacking platform to Leinster.
The Irish province launched into one of their perfectly-choreographed backs moves, Sexton and Gordon D'Arcy linking up on a loop and freeing Isa Nacewa. The former Blues fullback continued the move by finding Kearney outside him but a well-timed hit from Armitage forced a forward pass and the end of a promising move.
D'Arcy continued an excellent half by picking a brilliant angle to unpick the Irish line, holding the ball up as support flew forward. Sexton sent O'Driscoll along the wing, with the centre finding Nacewa in support. Nacewa hurled the ball inside for D'Arcy to score, but play was called back for a forward pass. Nevertheless, Leinster pounced before the break.
From the scrum the Exiles were forced back and Jamie Heaslip picked up and dove for the line. The Lions No.8 was held up but poor defensive alignment from London Irish allowed Leinster to recycle quickly and send Nacewa over with space to spare. Sexton missed the touchline conversion.
D'Arcy kicked off the second half as he finished the first by cutting apart the opposition once again, but was felled by a shuddering tackle. The Exiles saw a way back into the game when Cian Healy saw yellow for a forearm on Casey, although their hooker David Paice was lucky to escape sanction for his retaliation. Malone missed another straightforward kick soon after and Armitage's middling game continued when he heaved a clearance out on the full.
With CJ van der Linde down and receiving treatment Leinster were down to 13 men briefly, allowing Malone to fire a cross-field kick into the arms of Ojo. The winger set off but was hauled in by Heaslip in a try-saving effort, Seilala Mapusua being penalised for holding on after collecting the ball in support.
Malone turned down a shot at goal as the clock ticked past the hour, electing to kick a conservative touch and go for the try. The decision paid off for the Exiles, who used Mapusua at first receiver to make huge gains. Hala'Ufia continued the momentum towards the line, with the ball shipped out for Malone to wriggle over. The fly-half again missed from the tee though, leaving the scores locked together at 8-8.
Malone drilled another kick deep into Leinster territory as time ran out, turning down a long- range shot at goal from Armitage. The Exiles forwards powered forwards in the shadow of the posts, creating space for Malone to take on a drop-goal. When the ball finally arrived with the Australian pivot he faked and threw a wide pass to Sailosi Tagicakibau, who was driven into touch and the chance lost.
There was to be one more chance for the under-pressure pivot, when a scrum penalty went the way of the Exiles. Malone took a deep breath and threaded the kick, but the celebrations were cut short by Sexton smashing over an opportunistic drop-goal from the restart to level the scores. Irish pressed to the final moments and Malone had two further drop-goal attempts, but both fell just short.
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