After two decades away, London Irish are back in London – and they are back to winning ways, too. Leicester Tigers attended their housewarming party at Brentford Community Stadium, and were model guests, going down 22-9 in a tight game to hand them a moving-in gift.
London Irish have spent the last 20 years playing in Reading, and their return to the capital has been in the works for years. It was delayed by a couple of months due to the change in rugby’s seasons caused by Covid-19.
There were no fans to watch their first game back, but they will only have to wait one week. 2,000 will be in to watch them play Sale next Sunday.
Irish lost by a single point to Worcester to eight days ago in their season opener, and suffered a setback before kick-off, when former Ireland and Lions flanker Sean O’Brien was ruled out with a groin injury, and replaced by Jack Cooke.
Tigers, who finished 11th last year and are in a deep slump, were surprise winners against Gloucester at Welford Road last week but could not make it two from two on their visit to London.
The first points in the stadium were not scored by an Irish player, but by Leicester fly-half Zak Henry, who slotted a penalty.
Paddy Jackson levelled the score from the tee, then put Irish in front, but only after he missed another shot at goal.
On the half-hour, Curtis Rona went over for the opening try following smart work in midfield from Jackson and Billy Meakes, who fed his centre partner Rona. Jackson converted.
Irish led 13-3 at the break, but Joaquin Diaz Bonilla, a half-time replacement for Henry, judged Tigers to within six points with a pair of penalties.
The fly-half was one of five players brought on by Tigers’ chief Steve Borthwick by the 52nd minute, and it paid dividends as they made a spirited fightback. Leicester asserted increasing dominance at the scrum, and won seven consecutive penalties. They could not, though, convert that dominance into points but might have had cause for frustration that no Irish player was sent to the bin.
Irish were rather more clinical when an opportunity came their way. There were 65 minutes on the clock by the time they won their first second-half penalty. Jackson slotted it to take their lead back to seven points.
Four minutes later, former Leicester forward Steve Mafi won another penalty and Jackson scored from range to take Irish 10 points in front with nine minutes remaining. Bonilla failed to send the kick-off the required 10 metres, and suddenly everything was going Irish’s way.
From the resultant centefield scrum, the Exiles’ back fizzed, and Rona broke down the right, sending a lovely offload to Ollie Hassell-Collins. His offload only found Leicester’s Matt Scott, but Irish pressure saw him take the ball over his own line.
Leicester managed to pinch the ball at the five-metre scrum but, more than a score behind, needed more than just possession deep in their own territory.
They squandered yet more opportunities, and eventually handed man of the match Jackson another for a final three points. With the clock red, he sent it over to secure a memorable win.