Saints fightback falls short as London Irish prevail in Premiership Rugby Cup opener
Valiant Saints suffered late heartache at cinch Stadium at Franklin's Gardens as London Irish earned a thrilling 36-26 win on Saturday afternoon.
Irish had flown into a 26-7 half-time lead, scoring four times in the process as a youthful Saints side struggled to keep the opposition out in the Premiership Rugby Cup opener.
But the second half was predominantly played in the Irish half, with Saints flying back into contention.
The hosts scored three further tries to add to George Hendy's first-half effort, with James Fish, Josh Gillespie and Tom Litchfield dragging Saints level at 26-26 with eight minutes to go.
But Benhard van Rensburg, just back from the sin bin, scored his second of the afternoon to give Irish their lead back, and Rory Jennings notched a conversion and penalty to put the game beyond a brave Saints side.
Chris Boyd had named a much-changed team to face Irish, and it was the away side, who had also made numerous changes to their regular 15, who started the better on the day.
Irish had a chance early on as Isaac Curtis-Harris broke from a scrum, but his pass was knocked on by Hugh O'Sullivan and Saints escaped.
There was soon a huge opportunity for the hosts as a lovely delayed pass from Rory Hutchinson gave Litchfield a sight of the line, but he was stopped at the last by a brilliant tackle from James Stokes.
And Stokes was soon doing the business at the other end, too, finishing off an Irish move that had been set up when they kicked a penalty to the corner.
Fly-half Jennings converted and Irish led 7-0 after 14 minutes.
That score seemed to provide Irish with a shot in the arm and after Jennings placed a penalty into the Saints 22, Irish worked the ball to Chunya Munga for a score in the corner.
Jennings missed the conversion but Saints were conceded an alarming amount of penalties, providing the away side with a real platform.
Irish were taking full advantage as they pieced together a flowing move involving centre van Rensburg and Jack Cooke, which was eventually finished off by scrum-half O'Sullivan.
Jennings converted and Saints were 19-0 down after just 22 minutes.
Irish were playing some lovely rugby, with Jennings pulling the strings and the likes of Kyle Rowe and Stokes looking really threatening with ball in hand.
Saints were all at sea, struggling to plug the holes in the boat, but they had looked dangerous when in opposition territory, and they finally had something to shout about eight minutes before the break.
A series of penalties were kicked to the corner before Gillespie was released and his offload was juggled by Hendy before the full-back, on debut, dived over to score.
James Grayson converted and Saints were eager to build before the break, but on the brink of half-time they conceded another try.
Irish stayed patient and after several surges for the line they finally got over for their bonus-point score, through van Rensburg.
Jennings easily converted and Saints were staring down the barrel at 26-7 down.
The hosts enjoyed a period of pressure at the start of the second half, but Irish's white wall was holding firm.
Saints introduced Tom Collins in a bid to provide some cut and thrust, and the wing came up with the goods as his footwork opened the door for a courageous score from Fish.
Grayson converted and there was still 24 minutes for Saints to find a way to overturn a 12-point deficit.
Saints were given a helping hand when van Rensburg was sin-binned as the home pressure continued to tell.
The hosts took immediate advantage as a lovely pass from Grayson found Gillespie in space, and the wing did the rest.
Grayson missed the tricky conversion from out wide to leave the gap at seven points with more than 15 minutes to go.
And Saints were all the way back seven minutes later as some magic footwork from Hutchinson helped Gillespie to release Litchfield, who sped in on the right to score.
Grayson converted to make it 26-26, but Irish immediately hit Saints with a sucker punch.
Izzy Moore-Aiono took the ball within range and the ball was worked wide for van Rensburg, who scored just seconds after returning to the field from his sin-binning.
Jennings converted brilliantly from the touchline to take the gap back to seven points, and he soon added a penalty to take the game away from Saints.
Saints: Hendy; Gillespie, Litchfield, Hutchinson, E Grayson (Collins 52); J Grayson, James (Tupai 56); Iyogun (Auterac 40), Marshall (Fish 40), K Garside (Carey 40); Moon, Nansen (Lockett 40); Coles (c), Sylvester (Newman 58), Wilkins (Irvine 72).
London Irish: Stokes (Atkins 64); Rowe, van Rensburg, Williams, Redmond; Jennings, O’Sullivan (Englefield 58); Dell (Dever 77), Cornish (Willemse 67), Parker (Green 67); Nott (Mafi 50), Munga; Cooke (c), Curtis-Harris (Moore-Aiono 54), Cracknell.
Referee: Greg Macdonald