London Irish 29, Bath Rugby 22: Gary Gold backs Stuart Hooper over penalty move
Kyle Eastmond’s try and 17 points from the boot of the departing Olly Barkley were not enough to deny London Irish a first victory of the Aviva Premiership season at the Madejski Stadium.
Both sides looked to press forward in the early stages of the game, and when Marland Yarde failed to gather the high ball it gave Bath the chance to take an early lead as Barkley looked to strike a drop goal from the back of a scrum.
The attempt was wide, but Bath maintained the pressure. A good lineout, following a penalty in the visitors favour at the scrum, saw a powerful driving maul set up and Irish had no choice but to give away the penalty to halt it. Barkley made no mistake this time, giving Bath the lead after nine minutes.
Irish were looking lively in attack though, and it wasn’t long before Steven Shingler had levelled the scores for the hosts with the first three of his 19-point haul.
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An exchange of penalties followed, with both Barkley and Shingler striking the ball well, before the Irish centre gave them the lead on the 23rd minute with his second kick from the halfway line.
Staunch defence from Bath quickly snuffed out the attacking opportunities for Irish, and they were soon on the attack themselves.
A well-secured lineout saw the ball come back to Stephen Donald and, as Eastmond looped behind him, the fly-half floated the pass out the winger. Eastmond broke and fed Nick Abendanon, who continued the break with Tom Biggs outside him in support. Eastmond was quickly on his inside shoulder though, and as the ball was offloaded he had a simple run in. Barkley converted to put Bath 13-9 in front on the half-hour.
Shingler’s monster boot came to the fore again moments later though, this time kicking from just inside the Bath half to reduce the deficit to just one point.
The hosts continued to push hard, and with just a minute left of the half they got the break as Halani Aulika drove over from short range. Shingler got the conversion and it was 19-13 at half-time.
Barkley immediately clawed three back for the visitors when the teams returned to the pitch after Irish were seen to come in from the side, but the home side were refusing to give in to the pressure, instead forcing their way up the field and into a good position on the field.
The Bath defence held their ground, but when Ian Humphreys combined well with Yarde in the centre, they released Jonathan Joseph to burst through and score. Shingler’s conversion took the lead to 10 points, but Bath weren’t giving up, and powered their way into the opposition half.
A strong lineout drive from Bath saw Jamie Gibson sin-binned for repeated infringements, and the visitors looked to press home their advantage with Barkley kicking for the corner rather than goal. The forwards drew the defence, picking and going from close range. The ball was shipped wide, and while it looked like a try was certain, there was a knock-on and the advantage lost.
The Irish defence, a problem for them in their first three games, had been shored up and weren’t giving in to the heavy pressure from the visitors attack.
Barkley reduced the gap with two more penalties in the closing stages, but Shingler was on hand again to extend the lead with one of his own, taking the score to 29-22 as the game drew to an end.
With just seven points in it, Bath continued to hit Irish with wave after wave of attack, but they were unable to find the gap they needed and had to settle for a losing bonus point.
Bath head coach Gary Gold felt his side made the right decision in going for tries when they had the hosts on the rack after flanker Jamie Gibson was yellow-carded for a ruck offence.
Despite Barkley’s wonderful kicking this season, they went for a line-out when they were awarded a penalty 10 metres from the Irish line. And Gold admitted Bath had “enough penalty-kick chances to win the game”.
Captain Stuart Hooper held his hand up to say it was his decision to go for tries, and said: “The rationale was that they just had a guy put in the sin-bin who was doing a lot of work in their defensive line-out.
“We felt we had them on the rack and felt we could have scored.”
Gold said: “The balance in the first couple of weeks was there was a perception of criticism around the fact that we were kicking everything and we are a boring team.
“That is not what our intention is, though. We want to have that balance to back ourselves.
“They had a guy in the sin-bin and I back Stuart’s decision 100 per cent.
“As a group of coaches, we thought it was the right decision. We are not just going to do that (kick goals) all day long and hope we win. We want to score tries.”
London Irish: Homer, Ojo, Joseph, Shingler, Yarde, Humphreys, O’Leary, Lahiff, Lawson, Aulika, Evans, Garvey, Danaher, Gibson, Treviranus, Fisher. Replacements: Watson for Homer (79), Geraghty for Humphreys (78), Moates for O’Leary (79), Paice for Lawson (57), Cotter for Aulika (57), Skivington for Garvey (63), Fisher for Treviranus (57), Yanuyanutawa for Fisher (72).
Scorers: Tries – Aulika, Joseph. Cons – Shingler 2. Pens – Shingler 5.
Sin Bin: Gibson (52).
Bath: Abendanon, Eastmond, Hipkiss, Barkley, Biggs, Donald, Claassens, Catt, Mears, Perenise, Hooper, Day, Fearns, Skirving, Taylor. Replacements: Vesty for Donald (64), McMillan for Claassens (76), James for Catt (57), Attwood for Day (57), Ovens for Skirving (73). Not Used: Batty, Palma-Newport, Cuthbert.
Scorers: Tries – Eastmond. Cons – Barkley. Pens – Barkley 5.
Ref: JP Doyle (RFU).