London Irish 39 Doncaster Knights 22: Knights improve in second leg but suffer 49-point aggregate play-off defeat

Jack Ram: return boost for  Doncaster Knights
Jack Ram: return boost for Doncaster Knights
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Doncaster Knights were put to the sword again by London Irish in their Championship play-off semi-final second-leg clash at the Madejski Stadium.

The Exiles posted a 39-22 win to go through 74-25 on aggregate but Knights had every right to feel happier with their performance than at Castle Park a week earlier.

Certainly had Knights played as well in the first leg then they wouldn’t have been facing such a mission impossible task in the return.

The return of flanker Jack Ram served to give the Doncaster pack, also well served by the likes of veteran second-rower Matt Challoner, more of a cutting edge.

The tactical changes introduced by the club’s coaching staff also helped make a difference.

Irish drew first blood when former England hooker David Paice, who bagged a brace in the first leg, touched down for a converted try from a driving maul on seven minutes.

Knights, who had found it hard to break down the Irish defence in their three previous games against the relegated Premiership side, opened their account when Ram did well to force his way over from close range from a pick and go.

Irish extended their lead to 14-5 on 20 minutes with a try by winger Alex Lewington, who bombed two clear-cut chances in the third quarter, from a quickly-taken tap by scrum-half Brendan McKibbin, whose half-back partnership with James Marshall again proved so influential.

Dougie Flockhart pegged three points back with a 25th minute penalty, cancelled out by Thomas Bell on the half-hour.

The visitors finished the half strongly and would have had a second try on 34 minutes had Flockhart not lost the ball over the line in the act of scoring what would have been a well-taken chance following some snappy handling.

Knights were not to be denied, however, and Challiner, who had gone close from a lineout earlier, broke clear down the blindside from a maul and crossed out wide.

Flockhart added a superb conversation to leave his side just two points adrift at the break.

Irish were quickly out of the blocks after the restart and World Cup winner Ben Franks powered his way over from a close-range driving lineout within five minutes of the restart.

With McKibbin pulling the strings, Irish continued to boss the third quarter and Bell extended their lead to 25-15 with a 51st minute penalty prior to converting another try from a maul by Dave Porecki.

But displaying the never-say-die spirit which has been such an important part of their success in recent years, Knights came more into the game in the final quarter.

Big Joe Sprotson proved unstoppable from close range on 65 minutes and with Flockhart tagging on the extras only ten points separated the sides prior to a last-minute converted try by replacement scrum-half Scott Steele.

The game brought the curtain down on Knights’ campaign, but their performance, against arguably the best team to play at this level, will give them hope of another successful season in 2017-18 despite the departure of several key players.

Knights: Jarvis, Flockhart, Bulumakau, Hayes,Lewis, Humberstone, Heaney; List, Hunter, John, Challinor, Williams, Ram, Hills, Shaw. Rep: Bergmanas, Nelson, Sproston, Nolan, Carpenter, Edgerley, Cusack.