London Irish got the requisite bonus point win at home to the Dragons on Saturday, winning 41-24 and leaving them assured of top spot going into the final weekend of the Heineken Cup Pool One, and with a quarter-final place now theirs to lose.
Having secured a try bonus point with little more than half an hour gone it looked as if the Exiles would cruise to victory, that was until the Dragons found their feet in the second half and roared back into it. Their spirited comeback ended when Richard Thorpe was driven over for his third try, much to the relief of the Exiles director of rugby Brian Smith.
The regularity with which the Dragons missed regulation tackles in the first half was almost embarrassing, even more so their inability to control the ball in attack. Their hosts on the other hand were quite the opposite, hungry in defence and with a killer instinct in attack.
Having taken the lead through an early Peter Hewat penalty, the Exiles didn't take long to find their rhythm. A twelve-minute purple patch saw them score three tries, all stemming from poor Dragons defence, which sealed the game.
Hewat was the catalyst for the first score, slicing through a weak Paul Emerick tackle to set the platform. Wide it went to Richard Thorpe, starting his first ever Heineken Cup game, and he proceeded to bust four tackles to crash over in the corner.
Poor defence was again to blame for the second try, Peter Richards ghosting through the Dragons scrum defence before chipping ahead for Eoghan Hickey, who gathered and glided in under the posts. With Paul Emerick in the sin-bin for repeated offences his opposite number Shane Geraghty was able to slice through to compound the Dragons' woes.
It was not all one-way traffic though. The Dragons got on the board through Richard Fussell, albeit from an Exiles mistake. Topsy Ojo undercooked a chip kick in his own 22 allowing Fussell to get hands to it and slide over with a look of total surprise on his face. Surprise indeed, as until that point the Dragons had hardly touched the ball.
The bonus point score followed soon after, this time Hewat coming into the line with devastating effect. Turnover ball was sent wide to Delon Armitage whose deft inside pass sent Hewat gliding into the corner. As the half-time whistle went the Exiles jogged off with the look of a side who had done their work for the afternoon. How wrong they were.
They may have scored the first try of the second half, Thorpe's second, to give them a 27-point lead, but it was the Dragons who then found an attacking spark. Three second-half tries without reply gave the Exiles something of a scare. Any thoughts of cruising into the quarter-finals evaporated just as quickly as they had come in the first half.
As it was the Dragons' fiery fightback was quelled when Thorpe surged over for his third, providing ample breathing space for the final throes of an entertaining game. London Irish head to Italy next week knowing a bonus point win will guarantee them a home quarter-final, but they will have plenty to work on in the week.
One thing is for certain, if the Exiles make the quarter-finals they can ill afford to switch off as they did here, if they do their campaign could come to a sudden end. On the evidence of their attacking ability they could well fancy themselves as dark horses.
Man of the Match: For the Dragons Joe Bearman was a pillar of strength, and is showing signs of developing into a fine player. But his efforts faded against those of Richard Thorpe. Granted it was the likes of Peter Richards and Peter Hewat who made the telling breaks, but it was Thorpe's hard work in the tight, dynamic running and three tries that earn him this award.
For London Irish:
Tries: Thorpe 3, Hickey, Geraghty, Hewat
Cons: Hewat 3, Geraghty
For the Dragons:
Tries: Fussell, Daly, Wyatt, Sweeney
Con: Sweeney 2
Yellow cards: Emerick (Dragons, 22, repeated infringement), Sidoli (Dragons, 38, tackling line-out jumper)
London Irish: 15 Peter Hewat, 14 Topsy Ojo, 13 Delon Armitage, 12 Shane Geraghty, 11 Sailosi Tagicakibau, 10 Eoghan Hickey, 9 Peter Richards, 8 Richard Thorpe, 7 Steffon Armitage, 6 Declan Danaher, 5 Bob Casey (c), 4 Nick Kennedy, 3 Tongo Lea'aetoa, 2 David Paice, 1 Clarke Dermody.
Replacements: 16 Dan Murphy, 17 Danie Coetzee, 18 James Hudson, 19 Phil Murphy, 20 Tomas De Vedia, 21 Paul Hodgson, 22 Gonzalo Tiesi.
Dragons: 15 Aled Thomas, 14 Richard Mustoe, 13 Paul Emerick, 12 Ashley Smith, 11 Richard Fussell, 10 Ceri Sweeney, 9 Wayne Evans, 8 Michael Owen (c), 7 James Harris, 6 Joe Bearman, 5 Peter Sidoli, 4 Andrew Hall, 3 Gethin Robinson, 2 Ben Daly, 1 Adam Black.
Replacements: 16 Kieran Crawford, 17 Hugh Gustafson, 18 Adam Jones, 19 Lewis Evans, 20 Alex Walker, 21 Phil Dollman, 22 Gareth Wyatt,
Referee: Peter Allan (Scotland)
Touch judges: David Changleng (Scotland), Alan Forrest (Scotland)
Television match official: Andy Ireland (Scotland)