London Irish up to task and up table


ENGLISH LEAGUE: Newcastle Falcons plunged further into the relegation danger zone yesterday after a 20-0 defeat by fellow Premiership strugglers London Irish at the Madejski Stadium. Rob Andrews' side have now conceded 10 league defeats this season and head into the New Year firmly rooted to the bottom of the table with only 16 points.

London Irish, meanwhile, have a little more to cheer about, as victory moved them six points clear of the bottom of the pile, though director of rugby Conor O'Shea will still be looking for a significant improvement in 2003.

Neither side started well and, after missing two early penalties that could have handed London Irish an important six-point advantage, Barry Everitt managed to make amends with the first score after 36 minutes.

Newcastle made a costly error in a defensive lineout when hooker James Christian threw the ball long, to the surprise of his team-mates. London Irish capitalised and earned themselves a scrum. Scrumhalf Darren Edwards cleared Everitt, who chipped ahead and grounded the ball under the posts. This time Everitt landed the conversion.

Immediately after the restart, another Falcons error led to an Irish score. This time it was the turn of centre Nick Burrows, who charged down new signing Mark Mayerhofler's clearance kick to score. Everitt missed the conversion.

The number 10 then added a penalty before winger Paul Sackey wrapped up proceedings with an 86th-minute try, to hand London Irish three wins out of three over the Falcons this season.

Andrew, however, is confident Newcastle can turn around their season. "It is a pretty tough battle at the moment, but I believe we are capable of turning it around and winning games," said Andrews. "It was a big game against London Irish because of where the two sides were in the table, but there wasn't a lot to choose from between us."

Andrew's worries will not be eased either by England outhalf Jonny Wilkinson's failure to return to match fitness. Wilkinson was expected to start his first game since injuring his shoulder playing for England against South Africa during the autumn internationals.

O'Shea was happy to take the four-point victory, though it came at a cost with captain Ryan Strudwick limping off the field with a suspected broken tibia or fibula in his leg.

"The result was more important than the performance," he added. "We have now got ourselves at a crossroads, as we are winning games that we were losing. Now we can go up or down, and seventh place is within striking distance."