by Ben Coles
IN A weekend of thrilling matches in Round 6 of the Aviva Premiership, London Irish stole the headlines by hammering league leaders Northampton Saints 39-17 at the Madejski Stadium.
Before Saturday, Irish had conceded 180 points in their five opening matches, with a sole victory coming against Bath at home. Shaun Edwards was recruited by Brian Smith over the summer but Irish have struggled to adapt to the Wales defence coach’s new systems and as a result were unceremoniously thumped by first Saracens, then Wasps and Worcester.
Smith had promised in the build-up to last weekend’s clash with Northampton that patience would be required as a new-look London Irish tried to find their feet. Figures essential to the club’s success in recent years – Bob Casey, Paul Hodgson, Nick Kennedy, Delon Armitage and Clarke Dermody – all departed from Sunbury over the summer, leaving the Exiles with the need for new leadership and talent.
The recruits, including George Skivington, Tomás O’Leary and Ian Humphreys, appear now to be finding their feet. Humphreys in particular on Saturday was excellent at attacking the gain line and freeing Irish’s explosive backs, including England outside centre Jonathan Joseph. Many have criticised the club’s lack of Irish players over the years but with an all-Irish pairing at half-back of O’Leary and Humphreys, they could in time possess one of the most effective 9-10 combinations in the league.
As much as Humphreys and O’Leary were important on Saturday, Irish’s pack also showed a huge improvement in matching the Saints set of forwards at the scrum and lineout.
Now coached by former Nottingham boss Glenn Delaney, their effectiveness at the breakdown and scrum went up a notch on Saturday as they kept their discipline to restrict Northampton’s opportunities.
England prop Alex Corbisiero and Cai Griffiths, Declan Danaher and Chris Hala’ufia are all in the treatment room but will strengthen the pack further on their return.
Northampton’s unbeaten record going into the game crumbled away on a surprising off day for the league leaders, after a brilliant start to the new season. Courtney Lawes was magnificent last week against Wasps, yet in Reading he was outshone by a hungry performance from Irish’s Jamie Gibson, who galloped in from 40 metres out for the bonus point try. In addition, Soane Tonga’uiha and Brian Mujati were subdued by Max Lahiff and Halani Aulika.
On paper this was a certain victory for Northampton; 1st place against 11th, Irish’s defensive woes seeing them lose to Worcester the week before for the first time since 2005. Instead the Exiles stunned everyone watching – at one point they were leading 33-3 – and move eight points clear of bottom-placed Sale Sharks, looking to carry the momentum of their upset win into their Amlin Challenge Cup matches against Bordeaux and Mont-de-Marsan.
Crucial fixtures against Harlequins and Sale Sharks await them on the league’s return, but if Irish can replicate their level of performance against Northampton on a regular basis, they will not stay down the bottom of the table for long.
Follow Ben Coles on Twitter @bencoles_