Scintillating Reds set the Stade alight

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Saturday’s three-tries to two, 17-14 victory at Stade Santander, secured right at the death in sensational style with Auguy Slowik’s second superb try of the day, ended London Irish’s unbeaten campaign in the Championship – and lifted Harvey Biljon’s men up to a nose-bleeding third. Jersey trailed for much of the day, often hanging on with obdurate and, at times, desperate defence, but came back in magnificent style to deservedly equal their all-time Championship record of six consecutive victories.

It’s difficult to know what to praise the most; Jersey’s tenacity to maintain a foothold in the contest – with 14 men at one stage – when the league leaders threatened to cut loose; or the stupendous display of handling and running skills that brought them up to the last play of the match just four points adrift.

Pure theatre . . . Jersey could not afford the slightest blip as they went for a talented Irish side’s throat in a pulsating finale. Adrenaline flowing as freely as the Guinness to the hundreds of visiting Irish fans, meant every step, pass, catch, carry, offload and feint was super-charged with importance. But the Reds were faultless as they tore forward with pace, strength, heart and most importantly of all, belief, to put Slowik over in the Airport Corner with time already up. The limping Penberthy hit a superb conversion, but it served only to slightly lessen Irish’s anguish from suffering a one-point defeat to a three-point defeat. But the visitors, and their loyal and genial following, had played a full part in an excellent day for rugby and they did, in fact, extend their lead at the top with a losing bonus point.

Four paragraphs into the report and I’ve still to mention the try of the season . . . it really was that rich a tapestry (although such was the tension it remained scoreless for well over half an hour, though never dour).

That opening third-and-a-bit of the match had seen Irish slowly, but surely, assert themselves in a manner that befitted their record – only one of their opening eight victories have been achieved without a try-bonus point.

Jersey were fully-focused from the word go although Irish looked the stronger as play unfolded. A blow to Jersey’s hopes came when one of the season’s success stories, powerful winger Koch Marx, had to be helped off injured at the end of the first quarter . . . yet his exit led to Brett Heron, later named man-of-the-match, taking the field, with full-back Slowik moving to the wing – both played a huge part in the victory.

Another blow, this one without a silver lining, was the loss of Janco Venter to the sin bin as Jersey were pushed ever harder in their own 22. Something had to give and, down to 14, it did, with ball from the resultant close-range penalty scrum speeding out wide for Stephen Myler to backhand feed the Exiles’ all-time leading try scorer Topsy Ojo, who dived over by the Airport Corner flag. Stand-off Myler hit a super conversion and Jersey trailed 7-0.

A late rally from Jersey was snuffed out just before the half-time whistle, but when the teams re-engaged Irish were in the mood to put the game to bed as they camped on the home line. It looked ominous . . . but when the going gets tough, as they say, the tough get going. And how did they go! Gaining possession behind their own line the expected kick to touch failed to materialise as the fast feet of scrum-half Will Homer tore across the pitch towards the Barclays Pavilion to launch an attack that could well go down in St Peter folklore – and is already a leading contender for Jersey’s – nay, the Championship’s! – try of the season. Every hand that graced the ball, Aaron Penberthy, Herron and James Newey, took it forward in every-increasing velocity up the left then across to the right for the galloping Slowik to touch down. Sheer brilliance from start to finish.

Penberthy’s hugely difficult conversion missed, Irish still led by two points and they soon showed why they remain the division’s promotion favourites by wresting back the initiative with their second try, although referee Luke Pearce seemed to play an inadvertent blocking role as flankers Josh McNally and Blair Cowan combined in a direct run to the posts, with the latter gleefully diving over. Myler could have kicked the conversion blindfolded and Irish were now 14-5 to the good.

Jersey again needed something special to give them hope. . . and again they delivered.

Penberthy kicked a penalty to the Airport Corner and the lineout was won, with good work from Venter helping the ball on its way across to the left for the charging Van Dam – what a find this guy is – to bamboozle Ojo and win the race to the Bowl Corner. The wind took Penberthy’s conversion wide but the Reds trailed by four points.

The effort for a five-point score to take the lead for the first time was immense, but so was Irish’s resolution to keep their winning record. Replacement hooker Nick Selway had the ball dislodged from his grasp at the end of a series of promising pick-and-goes (and just a couple of feet from the line) as Jersey piled forward.

Led by captain for the day Jerry Sexton and returning skipper Roy Godfrey, Jersey were not in the mood to settle for a losing bonus and a period of intense pressure at the end, starting from a lineout on the right, had surges from a host of forwards, with replacements Charlie Beckett and Kyle Hatherell prominent, across to the left then back again, where the impressive Herron put in Slowik for another tremendous team try.

Unforgettable, with the Jersey coaching staff as animated as I’ve ever seen them as they celebrated on the pitch with their charges.

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