London Irish 7 Bristol 36
This is the season the Exiles will not be too sorry to wave goodbye to.
Caught in a strange Covid world, and between stadiums, there is impatience now to get bedded down as soon as possible in their new home-to-be.
From next month, London Irish will be taking up residence at the sparkling new Brentford Community Stadium at Kew. Their first scheduled match is against Leicester Tigers on November 29.
It will feel a long way from their home of the past two decades – Reading’s Madejski Stadium – but much closer to their spiritual London home in Sunbury, where they played for 73 years at the Avenue. They have trained at nearby Hazlewood Drive for 16 years, so it feels right.
During this strange transitional phase, they have only managed one post-lockdown win – against a second-string Exeter side – and been holed up at the Stoop, home of Harlequins.
In the nine games played since the resumption of the Premiership, theirs has been the worst record in the division. Had it need been for the automatic relegation meted out to salary-cap breaking Saracens, they would have endured an even more uncomfortable finish to the campaign.
But if drawing a line under 2019/20 and a new stadium ought to herald happier moods, the stark reality of fans being kept away because of the pandemic makes this a very sobering time for the Irish.
“We had planned this as a big ‘back in town game’ where we were aiming for a sell-out capacity crowd” chief executive Brian Facer said of that first game at Brentford next month. “To be told you can’t have anybody in the stadium is a sledgehammer blow.
“The effects of this are devastating. We want to be able to support ourselves and pay our own way, but when somebody tells you you can’t because you can’t have a crowd to generate revenue, it’s soul-destroying. We don’t currently have the opportunity to earn our own revenue. We are coming towards a cliff-edge.”
They were always likely to feel the heat in their final fixture of this convoluted season, with visitors Bristol Bears needing a bonus-point win to try and make the play-offs. The Bears started just outside the top four ahead of kick-off, but with every hope of overtaking one of Wasps, Bath or Sale.
The postponement of Sale’s final game against Worcester until Wednesday – caused by a coronavirus outbreak in the Sharks squad – threatened to leave them on tenterhooks until then. But Bath’s late slip up at Saracens to draw got Bristol over the line.
The opening passages brought encouragement for the Exiles but they soon fell behind when a break out of defence from Piers O’Connor set up Semi Radrada in oceans of space on the left flank and there is usually only one outcome when the Fijian is afforded that much territory.
The Irish frittered possession away with misjudged kicks and gave away penalties as visitor pressure mounted. Eventually a kick to touch and maul for the line following the lineout brought Bristol further reward through number eight Ben Earl.
Max Malins converted off a post but missed the chance to bag try number three, spilling the ball when free of the last defender and about to touch the ball down. But the fly-half did add a penalty to make it 17-0 at the break.
The Irish showed great spirit after the break, refusing the inevitability of shipping four tries for a bonus point and dominating with both ball and territory.
They deserved to get something for it and a brilliant run from halfway by Ollie Hassell-Collins – cutting infield after a couple of sidesteps – brought the Exiles a try. Paddy Jackson’s conversion made it 7-17.
But Declan Kidney’s men had no answer to the close-range mauls Bristol used to score three of their five tries. The Bears claimed their third try of the afternoon when a drive resulted in Harry Thacker touching down, before a penalty try five minutes from time gave them that all-important fourth five-pointer.
The power of their forwards brought them a fifth dot down at the death from Will Capon.
London Irish: Homer, Loader, Rona, Cokanasiga, Hasell-Collins, Jackson, Phipps, Dell, Creevy, Kepu, Nott, Munga, Rogerson, Cooke, Tuisue. Replacements: Cornish, Elrington, Hoskins, De Chaves, Donnell, Meehan, Neal, Stokes.