Jersey Reds carved out a slice of rugby history for the Island by claiming a place in the final of the British & Irish Cup.
The Reds came from behind in the last 10 minutes to secure a 17-25 semi-final win over London Irish, the second time in nine days they had defeated the side who won 17 straight Greene King IPA Championship games prior to their Channel Island trip last weekend.
While the Exiles will concentrate on their main goal of promotion back to the Aviva Premiership, the Reds will have a final on the weekend of April 21st/22nd/23rd to look forward to having won their 10th successive game in league and cup.
The opening exchanges included four kickable penalty shots – two for each team. Callum Sheedy landed one three-pointer, but Theo Brophy-Clews was twice off target. The Jersey forwards looked powerful in the early exchanges, but were then penalised with a free kick offence around 30 metres out, and Irish took the ball quickly and it was all too easy for Tom Parton to go over in the corner, with England Under 20 Grand Slammer Brophy-Clews adding the extras. This was the first time the hosts had been able to get on the scoreboard, with a number of promising attacks ended by handling errors.
Several forays into Irish territory brought no points for the Reds – a dangerous Sheedy grubber was called back for offside, and Gary Graham, Apakuki Ma’afu and James Freeman were among those making good yards with ball in hand. Eventually the visitors were able to get more points on the board – Irish infringed at a maul and the Reds used the advantage for half-backs Kieran Hardy and Sheedy to send Ma’afu hurtling forwards and the Tongan found centre partner Jordan Davies who finished the job.
The Reds were 7-10 up and held the lead to half-time, Irish having passed up a late shot at goal to kick for the corner but lost the subsequent lineout.
A good start to the second half included a notable big hit from Graham, and soon afterwards a scrum penalty offered the chance to turn the screw. The maul powered forward and although Joe Buckle was just short after breaking clear, he found good support from Simon Kerrod and then Nick Haining who wriggled over.
Although Sheedy couldn’t convert, the Reds were in a good place and another confident driven maul, this time from halfway, set up another run for Haining who broke a tackle, perhaps could have scored himself but then a high but catchable potentially scoring pass to George Watkins went to grass. Soon afterwards a Sheedy penalty towards the corner drifted into touch in goal and there was some concern that Irish might yet find a way back into the match in the final quarter.
For the first time in the second half, Irish gained a really dangerous platform and began to exert some pressure on the Reds. The defence held firm to begin with, but then a loose ball was flicked back to Ciaran Hearn and the 53-times-capped Canadian centre burst under the posts. Brophy-Clews added the extras, and soon afterwards was successful with a penalty shot to regain the lead for his side.
Good work by Haining and replacement Uili Kolo’ofa’i helped the Reds move into the Exiles’ 22 and a couple of penalties took the Reds close. The ball was won at a lineout but was quickly burgled by the Irish, however the referee ruled this had been done illegally by Gerard Ellis and brandished a yellow card to the replacement hooker.
The next lineout saw a knock-on by Irish fingertips and so Jersey tried their luck at the scrum. The trio of front row replacements produced a strong drive and won a penalty from which Sheedy signalled confidently for the posts from the junction of 22 and 15 metre lines. The ball dissected the posts and the Islanders were back in front.
Forced to defend straight from the restart, the Reds then cleared and great follow-up work by Ma’afu saw an Irish defender forced into touch near the corner flag. A huge chance to score again, and Nick Selway burst from the back of a maul to crash over before celebrating jubilantly with a memorable garryowen into the south stand.
Six points wasn’t a winning lead, but this became eight with a superb touchline conversion by Sheedy, represented significant breathing space and Irish weren’t able to come close to scoring in the closing stages, which also saw replacement Ben Ransom forced from the field after a bruising, though legitimate tackle in the ribs from Ma’afu.
Eventually time was up and replacement scrum-half Joel Dudley was able to fire the ball of the field to spark the celebrations.
The Reds squad headed to Southampton Airport for an evening flight back to the Island and after a day off on Monday will focus on their next big challenge: Saturday’s Championship match against Doncaster Knights at Castle Park is a potential eliminator, with the winner highly likely to gain a play-off spot by finishing in the top four and the loser potentially missing out. Following the trip to Yorkshire the Reds will conclude their regular season on Easter Saturday, April 15th, at St Peter when Richmond are the visitors.
Delighted Head Coach Harvey Biljon said: “We had a chance to make history for the club and we took it. There were some opportunities that went begging in the second half, but the good thing was we were putting ourselves in the right positions to score and I felt that if we could keep doing that we would get the points we need.
“It was a different experience to last week, the players from both sides were a bit edgy to start, and the fact that it was a knock-out occasion seemed to add pressure, but we kept cool in the second half and I thought we deserved the win in the end.”
London Irish: Tonks; Cokanasiga, Hearn, Neal (Ransom 62, Atkins, 78), Parton (Gleave 74); Brophy-Clews, Allinson (McKibbin 47); Elrington (Hobbs-Awoyemi, 56), Gleave (Ellis 53, YC 72), Hoskins, Lloyd, Sinclair (McNally 56), Sexton (Narraway 47), Gilsenan, Nayalo.
Jersey Reds: Cuthbert (Eastwell 50); Watkins, Davies, Ma’afu, Scott; Sheedy, Hardy (Dudley 78); Woolmore (McCarthy 55), Buckle (Selway 56), Kerrod (Armstrong 56), Phillips, McKern (Kolo’ofai’i 55), Freeman (Argyle 78), Graham, Haining.
REFEREE: Jack Makepeace. Assistants: Phil Watters, Roy Maybank
Half Time: 7-10
Tries: Parton 21, Hearn 63
Conversions: Brophy-Clews 22, 63
Penalties: Brophy-Clews 69
Tries: Davies 33, Haining 45, Selway 77
Conversions: Sheedy 33, 77
Penalties: Sheedy 13, 73