LONDON IRISH take an 11-point lead into next week’s Championship play-off final second leg after a hard fought win over Yorkshire Carnegie.
It was not vintage Exiles throughout the first half and the hosts took a lead into the break after Danny Hobbs-Awoyemi’s try was cancelled out by scores from Mike Mayhew and Jonah Holmes.
But Nick Kennedy’s charges responded after the break with a Fergus Mulchrone try swinging the podium and a string of successful Tommy Bell kicks earned a 29-18 victory ahead of next Wednesday’s clash at Madejski Stadium.
It was a lively start with early errors giving both sides the opportunity to get off the mark.
Bell broke the deadlock in the second minute and put the visitors 6-3 up after Joe Ford had responded in kind.
And the first try did not take long in arriving and in some style through Hobbs-Awoyemi.
Scrum-half Brendan McKibbin waited for his moment to pick out the marauding prop, who showed great pace and power to burst through from the 22-metre line and score.
But Yorkshire quickly responded with a line-out maul as Richard Mayhew popped the ball on to brother Mike to go over.
And Yorkshire took the lead on 27 minutes with the try of the match. A big carry from Chris Elder led the way before the ball was turned on to Holmes on the wing, who danced beyond Bell and Ford’s conversion took the score to 15-13 to the hosts.
Carnegie took that lead going into the break after a strong Lewington run was unrewarded as he fumbled the ball after opting against releasing to McKibbin.
Kennedy’s men were certainly below par from their displays throughout the season and they were fortunate to keep all 15 men on the pitch just moments after the restart when Aseli Tikoirotuma caught Holmes with a high tackle.
Referee JP Doyle opted against showing a yellow card and that proved to be a turning point.
Topsy Ojo slipped on the wing soon after, but the lead was about to change hands again and duly did so on 56 minutes when Lewington ran across the field, shrugging off numerous challenges.
McKibbin spun the ball out to Mulchrone on the wing who, supported by Ojo, crashed over the line.
With the lead back intact it was all about the dominant pack and kicking of Bell as the full-back ended with a perfect record of seven from seven to earn a 29-18 first leg victory.
“We haven’t had a lot of boys that have played in finals,” said World Cup winner and Sky man-of-the-match Ben Franks.
“Finals are always tight.
“We hung in there, Yorkshire are tough and in those last 20 minutes it felt like we were getting on a bit of a roll.”
The return fixture is next Wednesday night, May 24, at Madejski Stadium (7.45pm) with a place in the Premiership up for grabs.
LONDON IRISH: Bell, Lewington, Tikoirotuma, Mulchrone, Ojo, Marshall, McKibbin (Steele 65), Hobbs-Awoyemi (Court 57), Paice (c) (Porecki 70), Franks, De Chaves, Sinclair (Robson 52), Coman, Cowan, Treviranus (Narraway 65).
Tries: Hobbs-Awoyemi (14), Mulchrone (56)
Cons: Bell x2
Pens: Bell x5 (2,8,68,72,79)
YORKSHIRE: Elder, Holmes, Lucock, Casson (Green 78), Stegmann, Ford, Davies (Green 60)x, Beech (Boyce 55), M. Mayhew (Graham 75) Faletau (O’Donnell 19 (Beech 73)), Smith (Myerscough 53), West, Stedman (Beck 68), R. Mayhew, Burrows (c).
Tries: M. Mayhew (17), Holmes (27)
Pens: Ford (6)
Referee: JP Doyle