Exiles suffer demoralising defeat

Scarlets 31 London Irish 22

Scarlets 31 London Irish 22

London Irish suffered a demoralising defeat at Parc-y-Scarlets that threatens to leave their Heineken Cup quarter-final hopes in tatters.

Irish blew a 22-10 lead and they now need to beat reigning European champions Leinster next Saturday night – with a winning bonus point – in the Pool Six rivals’ Twickenham showdown.

Even that might not be enough though, especially if Leinster secure a losing bonus.

But Irish, who could also progress as one of two best group runners-up, partially have themselves to blame after racing clear through tries by wing Tom Homer, hooker David Paice and number eight Chris Hala’ufia, while fly-half Ryan Lamb added two conversions and a penalty.

The Scarlets looked down and out, 12 points behind after 57 minutes, yet two second-half tries from flanker Rob McCusker and a double by Wales centre Jonathan Davies confirmed a thrilling win.

Davies’ injury time touchdown meant Irish missed out on a losing bonus point.

Fly-half Rhys Priestland slotted four conversions and a penalty and it would have been a comfortable home success had he not missed four other penalty chances.

Irish’s demise has also helped increase the possibility of no English clubs making this season’s Heineken last-eight.

Irish arrived in west Wales knowing victories over the Scarlets – and then Leinster – would guarantee a quarter-final place.

Exiles boss Toby Booth made a handful of changes following the 24-22 Guinness Premiership loss to Northampton last time out, with Lamb handed Irish’s critical fly-half playmaker role.

The Scarlets though, were missing injured Wales internationals Jones and Matthew Rees as they looked to breathe life into a European campaign deflated following pre-Christmas home and away defeats against Leinster.

The game began at a rapid rate of knots, with three tries in the first 15 minutes – two for Irish.

Homer collected the first, rounding off impressive work by centre Seilala Mapusua and England full-back Delon Armitage, but the Scarlets staged an immediate response.

Like Irish, they looked to spin possession wide, and their adventure was rewarded when wing Andrew Fenby sprinted outside his opposite number before sending the supporting Davies sprinting over.

Priestland added the conversion for a 7-5 advantage, yet Irish quickly regrouped to carve out an opening for Paice.

Lamb’s conversion opened up a threatening lead, and it looked as though Irish would take charge when Scarlets lock Lou Reed was sin-binned for deliberate obstruction on Irish scrum-half Paul Hodgson.

Lamb slotted the resulting penalty, but Irish were unable to capitalise on their temporary one-man advantage and Priestland ended the half by kicking a long-range penalty following his earlier misses.

Priestland, though, turned villain 12 minutes into the second period, failing to gather Irish wing Peter Hewat’s steepling kick, and with the Scarlets defence ball-watching, Hala’ufia collected a kind bounce and cruised clear.

It was a soft score for the Scarlets to concede, although they kept plugging away despite facing a 12-point deficit entering the final quarter.

And their resilience was rewarded 15 minutes from time when McCusker showed a considerable turn of speed for the Llanelli side’s second try, converted by Priestland.

Irish, who had been chasing a bonus point, suddenly found themselves scrapping just to stay in front, with Booth looking for stronger half-back control by sending on Peter Richards and Chris Malone as the clock ticked down.

North Walian McCusker though, had other ideas, claiming his second try – it required confirmation from television match official Daniel Gillet – and Irish could only stare in disbelief as Priestland rifled over the touchline conversion.

The visitors mounted an inevitable onslaught during a frenzied finale, yet the Scarlets were not to be denied after putting themselves in pole position.

Irish repeatedly ran possession at them, but a defensive structure moulded by former Australia international defence coach John Muggleton held its shape amid intense pressure.

And referee Jerome Garces’ final whistle – immediately after Davies finished Irish off – sparked scenes of wild celebration, with the Scarlets travelling to Brive next weekend knowing that another victory could see them finish second in the group.

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