Jersey Reds produced one of their best performances in winning a gripping encounter against previously unbeaten league leaders London Irish.
In ending the Exiles' 17-match winning run in the Greene King IPA Championship, the home side extended their own run of victories to nine in all competitions, dating back to New Year's Day. The game was played in front of 3,317 spectators at St Peter, with around one third of the audience made up of visitors cheering on the away team, which made for a vibrant and noisy occasion, with every Irish chant matched with equal fervour and volume by the home supporters.
As well as matching the visitors off the field, the Reds were determined to show they could compete on it against a side containing eight full internationals and plentiful experience in the Aviva Premiership - the level at which the Exiles intend to be playing their rugby again from September having progressed through the Championship play-offs.
The early pressure may have come from the home side, during which time visiting centre Theo Brophy-Clews departed with a blood injury. The England under 20 grand slammer was back within four minutes; the Irish withstood this period and within 10 minutes had claimed points from their first meaningful foray into Jersey's half.
A series of forward drives established a platform, and eventually the tiniest chink appeared in the Red wall, allowing scrum-half Scott Steele to sneak through for the try.
Brophy-Clews couldn't add the extras on a challenging day for those kicking from the tee and out of hand, with a north-east wind of approximately force seven blowing down the ground towards Jersey Bowl. The Reds wanted to maximise the advantage of the conditions, but kicking was scarcely any easier with the wind, and Callum Sheedy's 25th-minute penalty attempt went wide.
But the penalty was one of a growing number awarded to the home side and reflected the grip they were beginning to take. This included a solid showing at the scrum, from where another penalty was signalled close to the Irish line, but never awarded, as the Reds took advantage of the advantage, with Joel Dudley putting in Nick Scott for a try in the Bowl corner.
The scoreboard remained evenly-balanced at half-time after a smartly-taken drop goal by Irish full-back Ben Ransom was cancelled out by Sheedy's penalty two minutes prior to the break.
Knowing they would be attacking into the wind in the second half, the result of a bold call from skipper James Freeman on winning the toss that didn't match the views of Head Coach Harvey Biljon, the home team must have been disappointed not to have a lead to defend. The scoreboard parity soon became a deficit after Brophy-Clews landed a penalty within six minutes of the restart to make it 8-11.
The Reds were obliged to spend large periods of the second half defending, knowing that a second Irish try might possibly put the visitors out of sight, but also showed flashes of potential in attack. This was a long way from being a lost cause, and the supporters of both sides cranked up the volume levels, knowing that the next score could be crucial.
With around 10 minutes to play the Reds won a crucial turnover in their 22 and counter-attacked through full-back Jack Cuthbert, who then released Jordan Davies who made it into the opposition 22. The centre just failed to find Scott with what may have been a scoring pass, but the Reds were where they wanted to be, with the Irish defence scrambling back.
A series of forward drives gained valuable yardage, but the final thrust seemed to be the most difficult with the Exiles determined to hold up. As with the winning runs of both sides, something had to give, and it was flanker Gary Graham who eventually found the power and timing to squeeze through and plant the ball on the try-line.
The home support went ever-so-slightly bonkers at this stage, especially as the two-point lead was doubled with a well-judged conversion by Sheedy to leave the visitors needing a try to regain the lead and salvage their winning run.
The closing stages were mostly played in Jersey's half, with the away supporters having recovered their voice after Graham's try and urging on their team. The Reds' response was a cacophony of chanting and board-banging, plus a wall of defenders.
Irish won several penalties during this period and attacked via lineouts and mauls, but the Reds held firm and then won a lineout through a scrum penalty. The touch-kick into the wind from Davies gained little ground, and the Irish soon regained possession only to surrender it. Jersey's first attempt to run down the clock ended with yet another turnover, but in the end it was an Irish knock-on that brought the final whistle.
A jubilant Biljon ranked the win in his side's top three best performances since he made the move from Cornwall in January 2014, alongside the last-day drama at Bedford at the end of his first season, and the home league win over Worcester Warriors, who had also topped the table when bringing a long unbeaten run to St Peter in March 2015.
"Once again we've turned out a fantastic performance against a Premiership-ready team," he said. "There's likely to be a reaction now from London Irish when we meet them again next weekend [in the B&I Cup semi-final] but right now we should enjoy this moment.
"We missed some scoring chances in the first half, but in the second period we showed massive determination. It was more the 'roll up your sleeves' attitude than any of the tactical or technical factors that got us where we needed to be."
The win maintains Jersey's hopes of a play-off spot, which could mean another encounter with the Exiles who have already secured first place in the table. With Cornish Pirates retaining their top four ambitions by defeating fourth-placed Doncaster Knights on Sunday, both of those sides remain in the hunt for the two remaining play-off spots along with the Reds and Ealing Trailfinders.
Jersey travel on Sunday to the Madejski Stadium to take on the Irish again, this time in the B&I Cup semi-final. Kick off is at 2pm, and if you can't make the trip over, why not join us at the club where there will be showing a live-streaming of the game?
A two-course lunch comprising Sunday roast with all the trimmings, followed by a selection of cheeses is available for £15 to include admission, or there's an alternative option costing £5 per person, to come up and just watch the game on the big screens.
The clubhouse will open from 12 noon with lunch served from 12.30pm. To book, please email Sean Dunne with the number of people in your party and whether you are booking for lunch, or just admission only.
Cuthbert; Adair, Ma'afu, Davies, Scott; Sheedy (Eastwell 75), Dudley (Hardy 42); Woolmore (McCarthy 63), Buckle (Selway 65), Kerrod (Armstrong 67), Phillips, McKern (Kolo'ofa'i 58), Freeman (c), Graham (Argyle 72), Haining.
Ransom; Lewington, Hearn (Tikoirotuma, 67), Brophy Clews (Tikoirotuma 2-5), Ojo (Tikoirotuma, 46-50); Marshall, Steele (Allinson 72); Court (Hobbs-Awoyemi, 52), Paice (c) (Porecki, 64), Hoskins (Chawatama, 61), Robson (Sexton, 56), De Chaves, Narraway, Cowan, Treviranus (Nayalo, 66).
Referee: Matt Carley Assistants: Rob Warburton, Christophe Ridley
Half Time: 8-8
Men-of-the-match (as chosen by match day sponsor Barclays):
Jack Cuthbert (Jersey Reds)
James Marshall (London Irish)
Tries: Scott 30, Graham 72
Conversion: Sheedy 72
Penalty: Sheedy 39
Try: Steele 9
Penalty: Brophy-Clews 46
Drop-goal: Ransom 34
31 Mar 2023
Five games remain to define Championship season