A late, late penalty try gave London Irish their first Aviva Premiership win of the season, condemning the Saints to a frustrating defeat in the process.
The visitors’ attack has come in for criticism over past weeks, but in one of the ironies that sport can throw up, in a game that saw them score three cracking tries Saints still ended up on the wrong side of the overall result.
To say that it was a frustrating afternoon for the Saints was something of an understatement. There were forced passes and fumbles, a poor call from the officials that turned a great clearance from Stephen Myler into a better attacking position from London Irish on the visitors’ 22, or giving a penalty against Saints deep in the home 22 just as momentum was building when the decision could have gone the other way.
But to concentrate on areas like this would be to do a disservice to London Irish, who belied their lowly position in the Aviva Premiership table to put themselves well on top in the contest. They were direct, physical and accurate, and thoroughly deserved the two tries they scored in the opening 40 minutes.
The first was reward for outstanding mauling from the forwards, who after a great drive finished it off at the second attempt by getting Luke Narraway over the whitewash. And the flanker was at the heart of his team’s second score, too, spotting space in midfield after Michael Paterson had missed centre Johnny Williams out wide.
Sean Maitland was the beneficiary, the British and Irish Lions full back sliding over for the score, and with Chris Noakes landing five points off the tee the Exiles were comfortably ahead 15-3 heading towards half-time.
But either side of half-time Saints finally built some pressure of their own, and were rewarded by a try apiece for wingers Ken Pisi and George North.
Both times the forwards got things going with lineout drives that brought an advantage, with Pisi being put in by a great pass from Ben Foden and North by a sublime Kahn Fotuali’i chip over the defensive line which the Welshman collected unopposed.
However while Myler was finding the wind tricky his opposite number Noakes was overcoming it, landing a 45-metre shot from in front of the sticks that kept his team in front five minutes after North’s effort.
Saints regathered themselves, and the replacements that began to see action also had an immediate impact. JJ Hanrahan replaced Luther Burrell at 12, and linked with Myler straight away to create space for Tom Collins - on for North - to come up the middle to the uprights. Fotuali’i was tracking the play, on hand at the right time to collect the offload and crash over by the uprights.
The try, converted by Myler, put Saints in front for the first time, and with Aseli Tikoroituma seeing yellow for a dangerous tackle the situation was set up for the visitors to see out the contest.
But credit where credit was due, as instead of letting their heads drop London Irish remained in contention, capitalising on some poor discipline from the Saints to put themselves into a dangerous position once more.
And right when it mattered the pack stepped up, making the most of Jamie Gibson’s yellow card to turn on the power at a five-metre scrum and earn themselves a penalty try.
Shane Geraghty’s conversion put the Exiles two points up, but with two minutes still to play there was time for a potential grandstand finish, not least when Saints recovered the kick off. They went left to right, working through the phases and into the home 22.
Might there have been a penalty? Possibly, but play went on, Myler dropping into the pocket for what would have been a match-winning drop goal. But the control Saints needed had deserted them, and multiple men in green had a clear run to the fly half and charge his attempt down and seal the win.
L IRISH Maitland; Lewington, Hearn, Williams, Tikoirotuma; Noakes, McKibbin; Court, Paice, Franks, Symons (capt), Lloyd, Narraway, Cowan, Treviranus
Subs - Stevens, Smallbone, Aulika, Sinclair, Trayfoot, Steele, Geraghty, Mulchrone
SAINTS Foden; K Pisi, G Pisi, Burrell, North; Myler, Fotuali’i; E Waller, Hartley (capt), Hill, Paterson, Day, Lawes, Gibson, Harrison
Subs - Haywood, A Waller, Denman, Matfield, Dickinson, Dickson, Hanrahan, Collins
6mins SAINTS Miss pen Myler
9mins IRISH Try Narraway 5-0
26mins SAINTS Pen Myler 5-3
28mins IRISH Pen Noakes 8-3
31mins IRISH Miss pen McKibbin
32mins IRISH Try Maitland Con Noakes 15-3
36mins SAINTS Try K Pisi 15-8
HALF-TIME L IRISH 15 SAINTS 8
45mins SAINTS Try North 15-13
50mins IRISH Pen Noakes 18-13
55mins SAINTS Pen Myler 18-16
62mins SAINTS Try Fotuali’i Con Myler 18-23
64mins IRISH Yellow card Tikoirotuma
76mins SAINTS Yellow card Gibson
77mins IRISH Try Penalty Con Geraghty 25-23
79mins SAINTS Miss DG Myler
FULL-TIME L IRISH 25 SAINTS 23