London Irish qualified for the knockout stages of the British & Irish Cup when defeating Connacht Eagles 41-14 at sunny Dubarry Park, Athlone, on Saturday. The Exiles were in command from start to finish in this Pool C fixture despite a battling and sustained effort from the Eagles. The gulf between the clubs was evident from the teamsheets where, despite utilising a more or less second string, London Irish could still field a cosmopolitan side including a handful of U-20 World Cup winners and other internationals in their matchday squad. Two former Ireland U-20 players captained the teams, Buccaneers own Danny Qualter for the Eagles and Mullingar man Conor Gilsenan for the visitors.
On a crisp afternoon playing and weather conditions were perfect for rugby and the visitors took the lead inside two minutes, Scott Steele finishing off a fine maul with a try. Ten minutes later, Dom Robertson-McCoy looked like levelling for Connacht after a London Irish lineout went awry but the home province’s prop was whistled back for offside. Another terrific maul by the Championship outfit yielded Steele his second try after 15 minutes and, just four minutes later, the scrumhalf completed his hat-trick when the centres made the initial ground following a penalty kicked to touch inside the home 22. Theo Brophy-Clewes, returning after a lengthy injury lay-off had a poor return from placed balls, finally got his radar working with this conversion to put London Irish 17-0 ahead inside the opening quarter.
Steele then turned provider to pop the ball to Ross Neal who scored their bonus point try after a mere 26 minutes. Connacht then lost Josh Rowland and Conor McKeon in quick succession to injury while McKeon’s replacement Stephen Kerins was yellow carded within five minutes of his introduction. London Irish added further punishment when Neal touched down for his second try on 35 minutes with Brophy-Clews adding the conversion. A rout looked on at this stage but the Eagles kept battling away and were rewarded when Ciaran Gaffney showed good strength and desire to surge over following an exquisite crossfield kick by Luke Carty. This left the westerners trailing 29-7 at halftime
Adam Leavy made a terrific break for the hosts just after the change of ends before London Irish added to their tally when Senitiki Nayalo capitalised on a good handling move to crash over after 52 minutes. As the game entered the final quarter, the Exiles stretched their advantage with a pushover try by Todd Gleave and Jacob Atkins duly converted. But the spirited Eagles had the final score, Sean Masterson driving over for a 78th minute try converted by another replacement Morgan Codyre to complete the 41-14 scoreline.
Although London Irish fielded a primarily youthful squad, they were noticeably bigger and stronger than the Eagles. The abrasive Nayalo, lock Jerry Sexton (brother of Ireland’s Jonny) and flanker Gilsenan gave them a harder edge. Former Leicester Tigers player Steele was a constant thorn at scrumhalf while Ciaran Hearn also threatened in the centre.
Buccaneers had seven players in the home squad including halfback pairing of Carty and McKeon. Second row Qualter led by example and fellow lock Cian Romaine made a solid impression when introduced in the second half while Rory Moloney and Saba Meunargia also worked hard in the forwards exchanges.
CONNACHT EAGLES:- J.Rowland; M.Byrne, C.Gaffney, K.Joyce, A.Leavy; C.McKeon, L.Carty; J.Dineen, S.O’Hehir, D.Robertson-McCoy; C.Gallagher, D.Qualter (captain); R.Moloney, J.Pim and M.Kelly. Replacements:- J.Murphy (for Rowland, inj. 26 mins), S.Kerins (for McKeon, inj. 28 mins), S.Meunargia (for Robertson-McCoy, 48 mins), C.Romaine (for Gallagher, 53 mins), S.Masterson (for Pim, 53 mins), C.Kyne (for Dineen, 53 mins) and M.Codyre (for Carty, 74 mins).
LONDON IRISH:- T.Parton; B.Ransom, C.Hearn, R.Neal, M.Williams; T.Brophy-Clews, S.Steele; H.Elrington, T.Gleave, O.Hoskins; J.Sexton, J.McNally; J.Trayfoot, C.Gilsenan (captain) and S.Nayalo. Replacements:- J.Atkins (for Brophy Clews, 60 mins), L.Narraway (for Trayfoot, 60 mins), W.Lloyd (for Sexton, 60 mins), J.Williams (for Neal, 60 mins), R.Brand (for Steele, 73 mins), A.Hay (for Hoskins, 73 mins), O.Adams (for Gleave, 73 mins) and J.Cooke.
REFEREE:- Ben Blain (RFU).