Photo Brian Tempest: Matt Bolwell and Robin Wedlake make the tackle with Toby Freeman in support
London Irish 38 Cornish Pirates 29
Trailing 26-8 at half-time few would have given a chance of the Cornish Pirates winning this one, however with a display of character mixed with skill they near the end genuinely came close to creating an upset, reports Phil Westren from the Madjeski Stadium.
This game was clearly always going to be another tough challenge for the Pirates versus a team they faced and lost four times against in 2016/2017. Their opponents, with former Ireland coach Declan Kidney and Les Kiss at the helm, are also understandably favourites to bounce back into the Premiership from which they were relegated at the end of last season.
For the visit to the Madejski Stadium, Callum Patterson returned to the Cornish Pirates side at inside centre and Harry Strong was named on the left wing. Just one change in the forwards saw Tom Cowan-Dickie selected at hooker. Listed on the bench was prop Marlen Walker who, having recovered from injury, was naturally keen to make a first appearance of the season.
After the Cornish Pirates ran out onto the field, London Irish followed. Given deserved applause as their first man out was former England wing Topsy Ojo – about to become the most capped ‘Exile’ of all time, the one club man and record try-scorer set to make his 291st appearance.
Following an early scrum penalty given away by the Pirates, their opponents were quick to take advantage, a touch kick providing a position from where their immediately effective catch-and drive worked to perfection, with skipper Josh McNally the identified try-scorer. Fly-half Ben Meehan kicked the conversion.
From the restart the Pirates got stuck into ‘Irish’. Prop Jack Owlett and Number 8 Tom Duncan were to the fore, and after showing promise and applying pressure the reward was a penalty kicked by fly-half Will Cargill.
Quick points on the board were just what the Cornish side needed, with the three then added to on 14 minutes with a superbly taken try. After London Irish looked to kick the ball clear of danger there was sense that if Robin Wedlake could gather safely, then despite being some 35 metres out a try could be ‘on’ – and that is how it worked. Instinctively assessing space to work in, the wingman took off. Was it an easy run to the line? No, but he made it look so and dived over in the right corner for an unconverted score.
For the remainder of the half the home side looked to keep possession and play to their strengths, which they did well. A second potent catch-and drive ended with Samoan international lock Teofilo Paulo scoring a try to regain the lead, and after a period of building phases the ball was ultimately released to 19-year-old left wing Ollie Hassell-Collins, who scored on his debut. Meehan converted as he did the home team’s final try of the half, scored by prop Danny Hobbs-Awoyemi. A potent driving maul had delivered again, for the scoreboard to read 26-8.
Th Pirates had played well in parts in the first half, however occasional errors let them down as was the case right at the start of the second period when an attacking line-out opportunity ended with London Irish gifted back possession. Then, as if to rub salt in a wound, scrum-half Brendan McKibbin took advantage of poor Pirates defending to score a converted try at the posts.
Now was once again a test for the visiting team, which for all but the remainder of the half they passed.
A quick tap penalty by scrum-half Alex Day was given prompt support by flanker James McRae, replacement prop Marlen Walker played a role and full-back Kyle Moyle suddenly appeared and left defenders grasping air as he made it over the line. Cargill added the conversion.
The Pirates now had a look of increased confidence, which was added to after referee Ian Tempest firstly yellow-carded home centre Bryce Campbell for a high tackle on Dan Koster and then subsequently awarded a penalty try after the Pirates had driven strongly to the line, But there was still more to heighten interest levels, as Mr Tempest went immediately again to his pocket, to also send former ‘Pirate’ Blair Cowan to the sin bin.
Home supporters, along with Messrs Kidney and Kiss, were now showing more than a tad of concern, but as it worked out the Pirates were unable to take advantage playing against 13 men. Fair play then to Irish.
But, in time remaining, the defiant Cornish team still held onto the dream of upsetting the odds, and after maintaining a solid defence close to their line were soon taking play to halfway. Locks Brett Beukeboom and Toby Freeman, who have been so industrious this season, made sure the advance continued into enemy territory, and how.
Inter-play with replacement Javier Rojas Alvarez again making an impact saw play taken into the opposition ‘22’, with Wedlake given not quite enough room to add to his try collection in the right corner. No worries, maintaining possession the ball was worked left where that man ‘Moyler’ again appeared to score his second impressive try of the afternoon. Cargill again converted.
If the score stayed at 33-29 then two points would be a good return for the Pirates. However, to sneak a win and secure five was also now a real possibility, and it would have been deserved. Sadly, it was not to be, as after Beukeboom saw his afternoon ended with a yellow card before he departs to fight a cause for Canada in November, McNally scored his second try of the afternoon to conclude proceedings. It had been a real battle of a game, played during Halloween time, and the Pirates had given their opponents a real scare.
Cornish Pirates’ co-coach Gavin Cattle was proud of his squad’s effort, saying:
”Knowing overall we are not the finished article and there are areas to work on, I am pleased with the boys who can take much from the game in terms of belief. There were some big performances out there and we created some fantastic tries.
“London Irish have the strongest set piece in the league and they were happy to play tight rugby for obvious reasons, but, as ever, we again showed a lot of character and at the end there was natural disappointment because I feel we deserved to get two points out of the match.
“After a few days off we will regroup, review the game and then look to push on.”
London Irish: 15 Luke McLean, 14 Topsy Ojo, 13 Brendan Macken (22 Ciaran Hearn, 74), 12 Bryce Campbell, 11 Ollie Hassell-Collins, 10 Ben Meehan, 9 Brendan McKibbin (21 Stephen Myler, 70); 1 Danny Hobbs-Awoyemi (18 Patric Silliers, 50), 2 Motu Matu’u (16 Dave Porecki, 64), 3 Ollie Hoskins, 4 Josh McNally (c), 5 Teofilo Paulo (19 Barney Maddision, 70), 6 Jake Schatz (20 Conor Gilsenan, 58), 7 Blair Cowan, 8 Matt Rogerson. Replacement (not used): 17 Manasa Saulo Yellow cards: 12 Bryce Campbell (57), 7 Blair Cowan (58)
Cornish Pirates: 15 Kyle Moyle, 14 Robin Wedlake, 13 Dan Koster (22 Alex O’Meara, 70), 12 Callum Patterson (21 Javier Rojas Alvarez, 64), 11 Harry Strong, 10 Will Cargill, 9 Alex Day (20 Alex Schwarz, 70); 1 Jack Andrew (17 Marlen Walker, 48), 2 Tom Cowan-Dickie (16 Sam Matavesi, 55), 3 Jack Owlett (18 Tyler Gendall, 63), 4 Toby Freeman, 5 Brett Beukeboom (captain), 6 James McRae, 7 Matt Bolwell, 8 Tom Duncan. Replacement (not used): 19 Danny Cutmore Yellow card: 5 Brett Beukeboom (77)
Scorers: London Irish – tries: 4 Josh McNally (5, 79), 5 Teofilo Paulo (20), 11 Ollie Hassell-Collins (28), 1 Danny Hobbs-Awoyemi (36), 9 Brendan McKibbin (45); 10 Ben Meehan (6, 29, 37, 46). Cornish Pirates – tries: 14 Robin Wedlake (14), 15 Kyle Moyle (50, 71), Penalty Try (58); cons: 10 Will Cargill (51, 72); pen: 10 Will Cargill (10).
Referee: Ian Tempest (RFU)
Assistants: Ian Bibey & Nigel Carrick
Official 4: Andrew MacNeaney