London Irish qualified for the knockout stages of the British & Irish Cup when defeating Connacht Eagles 41-14 at sunny Dubarry Park in Athlone.
The Exiles were in command from start to finish in this Pool C fixture despite a battling and sustained effort from Mossy Lawler's young home side.
The gulf between the teams was evident from the teamsheets where, despite utilising a more or less second string outfit, London Irish could still field a cosmopolitan side including a handful of Under-20 World Championship winners and other internationals in their matchday squad. Two former Ireland U-20 players captained the teams, Buccaneers' own Daniel Qualter for the Eagles and Mullingar man Conor Gilsenan for the visitors.
On a crisp afternoon, playing and weather conditions were perfect for rugby and the visitors took the lead inside two minutes, influential scrum half Scott Steele finishing off a fine maul with a try.
Ten minutes later, Dominic Robertson-McCoy looked like levelling for Connacht Eagles after a London Irish lineout went awry but the province's tighthead prop was whistled back for offside.
Another terrific maul by the English Championship club yielded a second try for Steele after 15 minutes and, just four minutes later, he completed his hat-trick when the centres made the initial ground following a penalty kicked to touch inside the home 22.
Stand-off Theo Brophy Clews, returning after a lengthy injury lay-off, had a poor return from placed balls. However, he finally got his radar working with his latest conversion attempt to put London Irish 17-0 ahead inside the opening quarter.
Steele then turned provider to pop the ball to Ross Neal who scored their bonus point try after a mere 26 minutes. Connacht Eagles then lost backs Josh Rowland and Conor McKeon in quick succession to injury, while McKeon's replacement Stephen Kerins was yellow carded within five minutes of his introduction.
London Irish added further punishment when centre Neal touched down for his second try on 35 minutes with Brophy Clews adding the conversion. A rout looked on at this stage but the Eagles kept battling away and were rewarded when centre Ciaran Gaffney showed good strength and desire to surge over following an exquisite cross-field kick by Luke Carty. This left the westerners trailing 29-7 at half-time.
Adam Leavy made a terrific break for the hosts just after the change of ends before London Irish added to their tally when Senitiki Nayalo capitalised on a good handling move to crash over after 52 minutes. As the game entered the final quarter, the Exiles stretched their advantage with a pushover try by Todd Gleave and Jacob Atkins duly converted.
But the spirited Eagles notched the final score of the afternoon, replacement Sean Masterson driving over for a 78th minute try converted by another replacement – teenage out-half Morgan Codyre – to complete the 41-14 scoreline.
Although London Irish fielded a primarily youthful squad, they were noticeably bigger and stronger than the Eagles. The abrasive Nayalo, lock Jerry Sexton (brother of Leinster and Ireland's Jonathan Sexton) and flanker Gilsenan gave them a harder edge. Former Leicester Tigers player Steele was a constant thorn at scrum half while Ciaran Hearn also threatened in the centre.
Host club Buccaneers had seven players in the Eagles, squad including the half-back pairing of Carty and McKeon. Second row Qualter led by example and fellow lock Cian Romaine made a solid impression when introduced in the second half, while Rory Moloney and Saba Meunargia also worked hard in the forwards exchanges.
Despite this fixture being a dead rubber from the Eagles' point of view and with the match being in direct competition with Connacht's Champions Cup game in Galway, there was an encouraging attendance which indicates that Connacht has a midlands support base they should tap into more regularly at Dubarry Park.
Referee: Ben Blain (England)