Newcastle Falcons took a major step towards Aviva Premiership survival with a gutsy home win which leaves them seven points clear of the foot of the table with just two games to go.
Marcus Watson scored the only try of a nail-biting game in which the Exiles held on for a losing bonus point, Newcastle’s heroic defence withstanding a concerted late charge from the visitors.
The Falcons had a 10-6 lead to show after an opening half which saw them controlling the majority of the play, spending large parts of the game camped in the Irish half.
Nili Latu’s midfield carrying earned them an early penalty, as did an advancing scrum in a promising start.
Nonetheless it was the Exiles who took the lead on eight minutes when Greig Tonks sent over a penalty from the left, Newcastle not rolling away at a ruck 40 metres from the posts.
Mike Delany tied things up with a simple penalty from in front after Taione Vea’s powerful running helped forced the visitors to infringe, Irish nudging back in front before the quarter mark via Tonks’ second penalty.
Then came the pivotal moment of the half, former London Irish speedster Watson flying out of the blocks from inside his own half to snaffle an interception when his old side attempted to throw a wide, looping pass.
Nobody in green could get close to the former England Sevens man as he pinned back his ears and raced to the posts, Delany converting from in front for a four-point lead.
That margin stood at the break despite the home side’s best attempts to add to it, Juan Pablo Socino and countryman Gonzalo Tiesi running the hard yards in an all-Argentinean centre pairing.
Chris Harris entered the fray for the second half as Tiesi departed, Newcastle adding another three to their total when a late hit on Delany handed Socino a penalty from just outside the 22 which was duly dispatched.
Irish pressure in the Falcons’ 22 came to nothing when the home side’s blitz forced a forward pass in prime position, Newcastle replying with a Michael Young charge-down as London Irish hurriedly cleared their lines.
The Falcons’ collective forward grit ensured a crucial turnover in their favour when the visitors had possession in the danger zone, Simon Hammersley breaking down the other end as Newcastle continued to show their attacking intentions around the hour mark.
Television match official Graham Hughes denied Irish a try when the ball was deemed touch-in-goal from a Shane Geraghty cross-kick, Newcastle absorbing an increasing weight of defensive pressure but managing to regain their composure
A nail-biting final five minutes ensured as the Falcons doggedly held on to their lead, leaving them seven points clear of the foot of the table with just two games remaining.
NEWCASTLE FALCONS: S Hammersley, A Tait, G Tiesi (C Harris, 40), JP Socino, M Watson, M Delany, M Young (S Takulua, 69); R Vickers, G McGuigan (S Lawson, 69), T Vea (M Cusack, 69), C Green (A Hogg, 69), S Robinson, M Wilson, W Welch (captain), N Latu.
Falcons scorers - Tries: M Watson. Conversions: M Delany. Penalties: M Delany, JP Socino.
LONDON IRISH: S Maitland, A Lewington, C Hearn (A Tikoirotuma, 14), J Williams, A Fenby, G Tonks (S Geraghty, 33), S Steele; T Court (T Smallbone, 40), D Paice, H Aulika (L Halavatau, 61), W Lloyd (J Sexton, 65), M Symons, J Sinclair (R McCusker, 61), B Cowan, L Narraway (captain).
Irish scorers - Penalties: G Tonks 2.
Referee: W Barnes. Attendance: 7,756.
Hammersley, Tait, Tiesi, Socino, Watson, Delany, Young, Vickers, McGuigan, Vea, Green, Robinson, Wilson, Welch, Latu
Replacements Lawson, Rogers, Cusack, Botha, Hogg, Takulua, Willis, Harris
Maitland, Lewington, Hearn, Williams, Fenby, Tonks, Steele, Court, Paice, 'Aulika, Lloyd, Symons, Sinclair, Cowan, Narraway
Replacements Cruse, Smallbone, Halavatau, Sexton, McCusker, McKibbin, Geraghty, Tikoirotuma
referee: Wayne Barnes
assistant: Peter Allan
assistant: Paul Burton
TMO: Graham Hughes