Steve Borthwick extolled the virtues of the Premiership when unveiled as England head coach this week and chose a compelling game for his first briefing as a feisty London Irishman belied his lowly stance in the league to stumble Saracens at Brentford.
Amid a flurry of cards, including reds for Adam Coleman and Ben Earl in the first half hour, Borthwick had plenty to think about as the Exiles triumphed 29-20. Tom Pearson and Ollie Hassell-Collins have been outstanding for the hosts and must be considered for the Six Nations. Given that Hassell-Collins has been heavily linked with a move to Leicester Tigers next summer, you sense Borthwick is already a fan.
Saracens’ night came down to the second half in which they failed to score with 14 players against 12. They were aiming for a 10th straight win to start the Premiership season, even though their week had already been spoiled. Theo McFarland, their superb Samoan international, has reportedly suffered a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament in his knee in a training accident and will likely miss the rest of the campaign.
In happier news, Nick Isiekwe returned for his first appearance of the season. But Saracens, who are also missing Jamie George and Maro Itoje, have struggled to find momentum throughout.
“We seemed out of place from the start,” admitted director of rugby Mark McCall. “We never played with the energy and clarity of mind that we normally have. We seemed shaken and we seemed distracted.
Ben Loader unleashed the Exiles, his tricky grubber forcing Alex Goode to postpone the touchline. Hassell-Collins, who was in pursuit, scored on the ensuing lineout, blasting away Owen Farrell in a confident finish. Paddy Jackson converted and the Irish continued to impress, with Pearson leading, despite Will Joseph being injured.
It took Farrell’s 15th-minute penalty to open the Saracens account, and Coleman saw red after hitting Tom Woolstencroft. Matthew Carley needed only one replay to judge that the tackle, which crunched his victim’s face and forced him to leave on a stretcher, deserved an ejection. Coleman was dismissed in both meetings between these clubs last season, although the second red was subsequently waived.
The Irish kept coming, a roving Hassell-Collins linking up with Pearson to win a penalty which was kicked by Jackson. With frustration clearly rising among the visitors, Carley penalized them for dissent. Loader and Hassell-Collins combined again, and the Irish scrimmage allowed Jackson three more runs. In an increasingly calamitous performance, Saracens lost Earl to what was deemed a shoulder charge to a bent over Pearson. Jackson pushed the lead to 16-3.
On the stroke of half-time, Saracens seemed to have recovered some momentum as Kapeli Pifeleti pulled away. An ensuing scuffle, however, handed the Exiles a penalty to end the first period. Jackson was on target halfway. Pearson rushed for a breakdown turnover to start the second half, but Saracens looked more determined. Elliot Daly’s grubber found space, Lucio Cinti fumbled and Sean Maitland pounced to score. Irish then scored as Jackson netted his fifth penalty, but was soon further compromised.
Rory Jennings and Rob Simmons, following a high tackle and a maul attack, received yellow cards. Still, the Saracens found it difficult. Simmons and Jennings came back without their opponents adding a point, although Billy Vunipola’s jackal allowed Farrell to knock Saracens 22-20 behind. Fittingly, a lost line sealed the fate of McCall’s men. Pearson passed Farrell and surged 40 yards down the field before Chandler Cunningham-South ended the fight.
Declan Kidney has declined to comment on any of his own England selections. The former Ireland manager has praised ‘honest’ Pearson. “I know that doesn’t sound like a big technical word,” Kidney said. “But if you have honest players, anything is possible.”
Rating: 5-0 Hassell-Collins try, 7-0 Jackson conversion, 7-3 Farrell penalty, 10-3 Jackson penalty, 13-3 Jackson penalty, 16-3 Jackson penalty, 16-8 Pifileti try, 16-10 Farrell conversion, 19-10 Jackson penalty, 19-15 Maitland try, 19-17 Farrell conversion, 22-17 Jackson penalty, 22-20 Farrell penalty, 27-20 Cunningham South try, 29-20 Jackson conversion
London Irish: Charger B; L Cinti, W Joseph (R Jennings, 10), B Janse van Rensburg, O Hassell-Collins; P Jackson, B White (C Englefield, 60); W Goodrick-Clarke (D Fischetti, 47), M Willemse (I Ruiz, 64) O Hoskins (C Parker, 64), A Ratuniyarawa (C Munga, 60), A Coleman, J Gonzalez (C Cunningham-South, 64) , T Pearson, S Fa’aso’o (R Simmons, 16).
Yellow cards: Jennings (61), Simmons (62).
Red card: Colman (16).
Saracens: A Goode; A Lewington, E Daly, N Tompkins, S Maitland (M Malins, ; O Farrell, I van Zyl (A Davies, 50); M Vunipola (R Hislop, 54), T Woolstencroft (K Pifileti, 16), M Riccioni ( E Bello, 53), N Isiekwe, H Tizard (J Wray, 60), A Christie, B Earl, B Vunipola.
Red card: Count (30).
Unused replacements: In Kitchener, J. Hallett.
Arbitrator: Mr Carly.