Northampton Saints’ run in the Premiership Rugby Cup ended at the semi-final stage, as they were beaten 30-18 by London Irish at the Gtech Community Stadium.
The men in Black, Green and Gold trailed at the interval despite two fine scores from Ollie Sleightholme and Tom Litchfield, and a Lucio Cinti try and eight points off the boot of Rory Jennings handed Irish a 13-12 lead.
The Exiles extended their advantage early in the second half when Josh Basham crashed over, and after James Grayson and Jennings exchanged a series of penalties, it was Matt Cornish who scored the decisive try with two minutes remaining.
Saints started strongly and scored the game’s opening try inside four minutes. After some big carries from Brandon Nansen, Karl Wilkins and Rory Hutchinson, the hosts were caught offside and – playing with the advantage – Grayson’s inch-perfect crossfield kick was poached out of the hands of Michael Dykes by Sleightholme to score.
Sleightholme was in the thick of the action again five minutes later after a solid defensive set from Northampton, as his grubber through put Dykes under pressure, but Saints could not take advantage of the five-metre lineout and Irish cleared their lines.
The visitors were pegged back with 12 minutes played as Litchfield’s kick was charged down, and after exchanging a couple of passes Cinti slid over in the corner, with Jennings adding the extras from out wide to make it 7-5.
Both sides conceded several penalties over the next few minutes as the fierce breakdown battle continued, but Tom Collins got back well to deny James Stokes a try on the half-hour mark and force a goal-line drop out.
A scrum penalty went the way of Irish inside Saints’ half, allowing Jennings to extend the lead to five points from 40 metres out with five minutes left in the half.
But while it was Saints who scored the next try as Litchfield ran onto Grayson’s offload inside to streak under the posts – with the fly-half adding the conversion to make it 12-10 – Irish led at the interval courtesy of another Jennings penalty with the clock in the red.
Highlights // London Irish v Northampton Saints
Northampton lost Sleightholme to an HIA over the half-time break, and Irish turned down a shot at goal after a breakdown penalty with Jacob Atkins kicking into the corner. Their risk paid off with Basham powering over from the resulting maul, and Jennings continued to strike his kicks off the tee sweetly to land the conversion from out wide.
Grayson cut the lead to five with a penalty on 49 minutes, and was unlucky not to score just before the hour mark as he hacked a loose ball through but just could not touch it down before it went dead.
Danny Hobbs-Awoyemi came on and made an immediate impact, winning a breakdown penalty just inside Irish’s half, which Grayson knocked between the uprights to take the scoreline to 20-18.
The kick exchange continued when Joel Matavesi pounced on a loose ball on 71 minutes, but Irish got over the ball at the resulting breakdown and Jennings landed another three points from the penalty.
But Irish struck the killer blow two minutes from time as Atkins sent a pass over the top and replacement hooker Cornish dummied the last defender before crossing to score.
Jennings’ final conversion made the final score 30-18, and Saints will look to regroup ahead of a crucial Gallagher Premiership clash against Sale Sharks next weekend.
IRISH: Loader, Cinti, Williams, Jennings, Dykes, Atkins, Englefield; Gigena, Ruiz, Chawatama, Caulfield, Munga, Cooke (c), Basham, Fa’aso’o.
Replacements: Cornish, Haffar, Parker, Scragg, Donnell, O’Sullivan, Poolman, Stokes.
SAINTS: Collins, O Sleightholme, Hutchinson, Litchfield, Skosan, J Grayson, Braley (c); E Waller, Cruse, Petch, Nansen, Coles, Wilkins, Hinkley, Graham.
Replacements: Burns, Hobbs-Awoyemi, Painter, Lockett, Sylvester, James, J Matavesi, Hendy.