Rugby in Brentford is properly under way. This might not have been London Irish’s first game here, but they value the passion of real people highly among the Exiles. This first performance in front of a crowd befitted the occasion well.
Irish had looked totally out of it in a strangely flat first half, but they overcame a 17-point deficit at the break to tie the game up with two minutes remaining. Paddy Jackson stepped up to the tee at the death for a penalty attempt 55 metres out. His kick easily had the distance, but it thudded into the left upright. So the Exiles had to settle for a draw.
They would have taken that in disbelief at half-time. Sale suffered the disruption of three withdrawals on the day, then further disruption in the first half with three more injuries, but they were so superior to Irish in the first half as to appear from a different league.
The loss of their fly-half and marshal, AJ MacGinty, before half-time proved one disruption too many. Sale could not score a point in the second half and watched in disbelief of their own as the lead they had built was relentlessly chased down.
But before matters on the field, a moment to consider the stuff around it. They have built a fantastic stadium here, tucked in among the high-rises of west London, a stone’s throw from the river and Kew. It was still reverberating from Brentford’s latest foray against the giants of the Premier League the evening before.
The asset on the field, though, is taking longer to build on the evidence of the first half. There is no shortage of quality on the Exiles’ teamsheet, but a punchy team like Sale were too much for them in that first half. Sale are a good deal further into the business of building a team. Their roster has plenty of big names on it, too, but these made their heft tell far more effectively.
Sale suffered the blow of losing Ben Curry as well as MacGinty before half-time, but MacGinty’s last act was to land the conversion of their fourth try, his fifth successful kick out of five, for a 31-14 lead at the break. The Sharks had totally dominated the first half, with well over twice the possession of Irish.
The new “slimline” Manu Tuilagi has lost none of his punch. His break in the third minute sparked a try for MacGinty. Marland Yarde made a similar mess of Irish’s midfield defence after quarter of an hour, and Sam James dotted down MacGinty’s chip at the start of the second quarter. The excellent Will Cliff darted blind to score an outrageous try for the bonus point.
If there was one positive for Irish, it was their strike rate on those rare visits to Sale territory. Two of them, to be precise, in the first half – and two tries resulted. Ben White tapped a penalty and went for the first, and Agustín Creevy finished the second after lovely interplay with Rob Simmons.
Those two smash-and-grab tries were to prove crucial. Maybe Sale were disrupted by the comings and goings, but Irish were transformed in the second half. Tom Parton finished a brilliant team try in the 47th minute, featuring breaks from Terence Hepetema and Jackson and some fabulous handling by the forwards.
Still 12 points ahead they might have been, but Sale were spooked, just as Irish belief mushroomed. The key development was a yellow card for the Sale captain, Jono Ross, in the 66th minute for taking out Sean O’Brien off the ball. O’Brien’s introduction for the final half an hour was as influential as any other development.
Parton was worked clear for his second by a lovely backs move off the lineout and drive from the penalty that came with the yellow card, which earned Irish two provisional bonus points, drawing them to within seven. O’Brien himself then showed off handling skills to go with his fabled physicality to release Curtis Rona to the corner for Irish’s fifth.
Jackson landed the conversion to tie the game up and set the scene for his last-minute tilt at glory. It was not to be, but Irish’s tenure here in front of real, living, cheering folk ought to inspire more to venture riverside.