Jersey hopes of repeating their giant-killing feats of recent seasons were dashed at the Madejski Stadium by a ruthless display by the leaders of the Greene King IPA Championship.
The Reds had done a job on London Irish when the Exiles had visited the Island back in November, but the champions elect were not in the mood to be ambushed a second time.
The visiting Jersey side failed to fire in their televised challenge to table-toppers Irish, who clinically executed a four-tries-to-nil win that left the Reds without even a bonus point, the first time this season they have finished empty-handed.
It didn’t take long for the home side to show their power from close range. A fifth minute penalty concession saw a kick to the corner and skipper Josh McNally went over for a try. The conversion by Ben Meehan went wide, but soon afterwards the scrum-half added three points from a close-range penalty.
The Reds had few opportunities in the first quarter, and when Brett Herron tried to kick to the corner from a penalty, the ball missed touch. The next chance saw Charlie Maddison break through and it seemed the hooker could have gone all the way to the line; instead he looked inside and found Roy Godfrey, but the prop was held up over the line.
Irish went on the attack and when Kiwi centre Terrence Hepetema made a break, his pass inside was slapped down by Will Homer, the Reds player earning a yellow card. The Exiles were quick to take advantage through replacement hooker Saia Fainga’a; the Australian international finished a rolling maul from the resulting penalty to the corner.
Jason Worrall moved forward to scrum-half to cover for Homer’s absence and initially the visitors seemed to be coping with a man short, attacking into the Irish half and earning a penalty that created a rolling maul opportunity. Charlie Maddison powered over, but was once again the decision – this time after consultation with the Television Match Official – was that the Reds were held up.
Disappointment at the near-miss was compounded when the home side regained possession from a knock-on after the Reds had won possession from a five-metre scrum and kicked it downfield. The Reds regained possession, but in trying to run the ball out of defence, Auguy Slowik attempted to pass to the supporting Janco Venter but only succeeded in finding Exiles centre Tom Stephenson, who seized the ball and finished from close range.
Although the Reds regained the services of Homer and repelled another Irish maul just before the break, they had a lot to do after the resumption. The Irish aim was to maintain the control they had enjoyed for much of the first half, and an uneventful opening to the second period suited the hosts far better than their visitors.
Practically the first event of any note since the break came after 16 minutes; the attack was begun by former Jersey back row man Matt Rogerson, later named man of the match. Stephenson took the ball on and Italian wing Luke McLean almost put Jake Schatz over for a try. A few phases later, with some heroic defence keeping out the Exiles’ forwards, Hepetema went over for the bonus point try as the Jersey defence ran out of numbers and the Kiwi’s dummy was enough to break the line.
The Reds looked to get back into the game straight from the restart, with Slowik bursting through and almost releasing Homer for a run to the line. Worrall and Janco Venter threatened soon afterwards, but then Leeroy Atalifo became isolated and was penalised for holding onto the ball, and the threat passed.
The closing stages of the game saw the usual stream of replacements and both sides tiring. Irish had done enough, and their attempts to add more points to their tally were repelled by some valiant Red defence. There were isolated flashes from the visitors in attack, with Aaron Penberthy’s grubber out of defence almost sparking a chance for James Newey, but the Reds’ theme of the day remained one of missed opportunities.
It may have been the least productive half of the season thus far for the Irish, who also scored just seven points after the break at Stade Santander International in November. But their control of the game rarely slipped, and they were ultimately able to maintain a comfortable margin at the top of the table, with Red ambitions of a memorable double fading away.
In his first game as Director of Rugby, Harvey Biljon was forced to admit that his team had come up short.
“For us it was one of those days, we didn’t get the rub of the green or the bounce of the ball, but you have to give credit to London Irish – they played with purpose and passion.
“There were times when it was a game of inches, and when we were held up, those were tipping points. We came here with a strategy, but we didn’t have the ball or the territory to execute it, and that meant we struggled to put Irish under pressure – and they took advantage.”
London Irish (1-15)
Gordon Reid, Dave Porecki, Ollie Hoskins, Franco Van Der Merwe, Josh McNally (capt), Jake Schatz, Conor Gilsenan, Matt Rogerson; Ben Meehan, Jacob Atkins; Luke McLean, Terrence Hepetema, Tom Stephenson, Matt Williams; Alivereti Veitokani.
Replacements: Saia Fainga’a (for Porecki 14 mins), Harry Elrington (Reid 62), Albert Tuisue (Gilsenan 62), Scott Steele (Atkins 66), Patric Cilliers (Hoskins 66), Teofilo Paulo (Schatz 71), Brendan Macken (Hepetema 75)
Jersey Reds (1-15)
Roy Godfrey, Charlie Maddison, Leeroy Atalifo, Jerry Sexton (capt), Charlie Beckett, Rory Bartle, Max Argyle, Janco Venter; Will Homer (YC 25), Brett Herron; Leroy Van Dam, Mark Best, James Newey, Jason Worrall; Auguy Slowik.
Replacements: Aaron Penberthy (for Best 53 mins), Sam Rodman (Atalifo 59) Jake Upfield (Venter 62), Nick Selway (Maddison 62), Dave McKern (Beckett 62), Liam Howley (Homer 65), Harry Morley (Godfrey 66)
REFEREE: Ian Tempest. Assistants: Simon Harding, Shane Lewis
Half Time: 20-3
Tries: McNally 5, Fainga’a 26, Stephenson 37, Hepetema 56
Conversions: Meehan 26, 56
Penalty: Meehan 17
Penalty: Herron 23