London Irish 13 Sale Sharks 21
London Irish were edged out in the second match at their new home, as a Curtis Rona try failed to make up for two Sharks touchdowns.
But this was a day that will always be remembered as the one the fans returned.
Years from now, it will be a stat that baffles those thumbing through the history books. How could it be that London Irish were able to draw a crowd as big as an England v France international being played at the same moment, just a few short miles away at rugby’s HQ?
Such are the quirks amidst the havoc that the pandemic has caused.
The Exiles were so glad to welcome 2,000 spectators for the first time to their second match at Brentford Community Stadium, just a day after their footballing landlords were able to do the same.
And those present were surely every bit as eager to savour the occasion as the 2,000 souls lucky enough to claim a ticket for England’s Autumn Nations Cup Final at the 85,000-capacity Twickenham Stadium.
They had drummers to whip up the crowd into chants of encouragement, and The Fields of Athenry blaring out over the PA. It was good to have that familiar background hubbub of a match day again.
Officials were commendably booed with blinkered enthusiasm when a thundering challenge on world cup winner Faf de Klerk by Sekope Kepu was penalised – though Kepu would legally have been on firmer ground had the Sale scrum-half actually been in possession of the ball at the time.
For all the positivity, it may take time for London Irish to re-establish a strong West London fanbase after all those years away in Reading. Tickets for this encounter reached general sale because they were not completely snaffled by members.
Those supporters who have waited patiently for their moment could have done with seeing a win, of course, but Sale were not obliging visitors.
Their South African contingent know how to apply and withstand pressure and midway through the first half, a succession of penalties gave De Klerk the opportunity to take a tap-kick rather than feed a set scrum and his offload was put away by Rohan Janse Van Rensburg from close range.
AJ MacGinty converted, adding to an earlier penalty, and it was 26 minutes before the Exiles got the scoreboard moving – Paddy Jackson landing a penalty from distance.
But the Irish managed to go in level at half-time with a try to make it 13-13 just before the turnaround.
Exiles fly-half Jackson, who had grabbed another three-pointer to cancel a fresh MacGinty penalty, inspired the moment of the half with a brilliant dash which carved open the Sharks defence and Rona finished the job – adding to the try he bagged in the opening home fixture against Leicester Tigers.
The hope was soon dampened, however, as a Sharks forwards’ drive at the start of the second half ended with Akker Van der Merwe claiming a second try of the afternoon to restore the visitors’ lead.
The Irish response was impressive. They kept the ball alive in a series of quick phases which bought them territory and that momentum allowed Jackson another pot at goal – missed this time – and a great break from replacement Isaac Curtis-Harris almost created a try-scoring opportunity.
But Sharks made it 21-13 with another penalty after stout defending had held them up near the Exiles’ tryline. After that, Sale’s attritional, grinding approach held the Irish at bay.
Exiles lost skipper Matt Rogerson in the first half under head injury protocol and it summed up a game of bruising commitment. It did not go the Exiles’ way this time but the fans will have been happy just to be there.
London Irish: Homer, Loader, Rona, Meakes, Hassell-Collins, Jackson, Phipps, Dell, Creevy, Kepu, Nott, Mahu, Cooke, Morre-Aiono, Rogerson. Replacements: Matu’u, Goodrick-Clarke, Mafi, Cutis-Harris, Meehan, Brophy-Clews, Parton