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The 'surreal, bizarre' London Irish verdict on playing with just 12

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Ryan Hiscott/Getty Images)

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London Irish head coach Les Kiss has proudly reflected on the crazy period after half-time last Saturday where his team had to play Northampton with just twelve players after they had suffered three yellow cards just before the interval. Referee Luke Pearce dished out sin-bins in quick succession to Tom Pearson, Henry Arundell and Rob Simmons, but Irish incredibly ‘won’ the section of the game 3-0 when it was 15 Saints versus a dozen Exiles after half-time.

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Irish were ultimately defeated 38-22, Northampton powering away when the fixture became a 15-versus-15 contest again, but Kiss took much encouragement from how his players and assistant coaches reacted to a three-men-down crisis they had never trained for. “You don’t practice for that, that is for sure,” he admitted to RugbyPass.

“You always practice for one down, particularly if you lose a nine or a two. There are always variables in that to grasp hold of how you handle that. Do you put a ten into nine, a wing into nine if he is gone? If your two is gone, where do you put your defensive nine and how do you get your defence, particularly off of set-piece, set-up?

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“But for having just twelve players? No, you don’t train. If you think about it, we lost a back row, a tight-five and then a 15 – it throws a lot of things but I’ll tell you it was brilliant really. The coaches just took control of their technical lead area, the players knew the areas we needed to look at and how we found a solution just happened fairly organically.

“Brad (Davis) had to set up the defensive mindset and move the pieces in the dressing room. It was a really calm dressing room, to tell you the truth. It was just direct about these pictures and were we willing to fight for each other and fight for every inch? I thought we did. It was brilliant. It was just when we got to 15 players, we seemed to want to take a breath and go thanks for that and then they just hit us quickly, fair play to them. They got us twice in a way that did hurt us.

“It [being three players short] is not something you practice for. We collectively put as much of our rugby intelligence together in that ten, 15 minutes at half-time to find a way to put it in their mind to make sense and they just took something and made it their own in that nine minutes when we had twelve men. It was surreal, bizarre. I have never had that before but it was brilliantly handled by the boys, that is for sure.”

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So well did Irish fare that Northampton director of rugby Phil Dowson told Kiss afterwards about his disappointment that they couldn’t exploit their numerical advantage. “I spoke to Phil and he was disappointed when they were against twelve. Sometimes you can show enough pictures where they [the opposition] get attracted by the space that is illusionary and it is like fool’s gold.

“They maybe shift it, attacking fool’s gold rather real gold, and they put themselves under pressure. So we held out and that was what we talked about, fighting and sticking together and connecting – and they kept going for the whole period – but just when we got back to 15 they [Northampton] got more direct and precise.

“It was a surreal eight, nine minutes, plus the 15 minutes at half-time managing all that. I wouldn’t say you want it every week but it was something good to go through, for sure.”

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