By Paul Morgan, editor of Rugby World Magazine
Well, something had to give here at the Madejski Stadium as two of the sides with the worst recent record in the Aviva Premiership clashed. Going into the game London Irish has lost their last eight games in all competitions since their 39-26 victory over Sale at Madejski Stadium on 31 October.
Bath’s most recent victory in Aviva Premiership Rugby was 31-16 against Sale at The Rec on 25 September. Both shocking runs!
Toby Booth was rightly exasperated by the performance of referee Greg Garner but as everyone in the crowd of 11,811 saw London Irish’s first try was created by a forward pass, so things do go both ways.
The game was one through a tactical masterstroke from the Bath coaches.
They were out-classed in almost every facet of the game in the first half and one had possession in the London Irish 22 twice! The fact that Irish only led 17-9 was the biggest surprise.
But in the 15-minute half-time break Steve Meehan and his coaches hatched a plan to attack Irish’s forwards in a very specific way with a pick and go game that was one of the narrowest I have ever seen. But it was effective.
Bath’s backline barely created a chance all afternoon, in contrast to London Irish who scored three superb tries – all singing and dancing!
But all singing and dancing doesn’t always win the game, although it should have done in this game.
So all Bath did in the second half was pick and go and rely on a very erratic kicking performance from Chris Malone. He kicked the ball out on the full once and failed to clear his lines twice, as Lewis Moody brought his England form to Reading.
Irish failed to get out of their territory for large parts of the second half and as Bath had been practicing this new style in training they stayed faithful to it, which was a brave move as Irish’s backline looked so dangerous.
They even stayed faithful to it when Topsy Ojo scored a superb try, cutting off his right wing and through an attempted tackle from Olly Barkley.
So Bath strayed patient, committed to the style and in Barkley they had a kicker who only missed one penalty all afternoon.
Bath’s pick and go and rolling maul even dragged Richard Thorpe into the sin bin and while he was off Bath scored a crucial ten points, including Michael Claassens’ try, predictably from inches!
In the end it was left to Barkley to score a final-minute penalty to win it.
Incredibly Irish have now not won for nine matches, but they are still fourth in the table, just ahead of one of the most congested mid-tables in Premiership history. Lose one more though and they could easily be seventh, and that would be unacceptable for a side of London Irish’s stature, and recent success.
But I do believe the match leaves London Irish (and not just in league position terms) in far better shape than Bath.
Irish should keep the faith as they have the players to get them out of this run. I would still back London Irish, as long as they win next week, to make the play-offs. One more loss though and they’ll fall back and they may start doubting themselves.
Players to note:
• Daniel Bowden – Could be the find of the season alongside Manu Tuilagi. Bowden’s kicking game gives England an inside centre they currently don’t have. Without an All Blacks cap he could (perhaps) be persuaded to throw in his lot with England in 2012 once he serves his residency qualification.
• Danny Grewcock – He would be mad to retire at the end of the season as he has suggested. He put the grunt into the Bath effort today and could still offer something to England.
• Alex Corbisiero – Another who will play for England as he offers the ball-carrying threat so absent from the vast majority of England props. Another one to move into the set-up quickly.
• James Buckland – When he was at Leicester I always felt his lineout throwing wasn’t good enough for the top level, but he has clearly worked very hard on this side of his game and deserves an England A call-up.
London Irish (17) 24 Tries: Tagicakibau, Thorpe, Ojo Cons: Malone 2, Bowden Pens: Malone Bath (9) 25 Tries: Claassens Cons: Barkley Pens: Barkley 6