CAPTAIN Josh McNally scored two tries as London Irish marked Topsy Ojo’s record-breaking 291st appearance with a 38-29 home victory against Cornish Pirates to move top of the Greene King IPA Championship, writes Richard Ashton.

Declan Kidney’s men recorded their eighth consecutive win at the start of the campaign to move three points clear of Ealing Tralifinders with a game in hand, and look well on course to make an immediate return to the Gallagher Premiership after another dominant forwards effort.

It took just five minutes for Exiles to give a taste of what was to come, the pack utilising a perfect rolling maul to drive over from five minutes out with McNally opening his account for the afternoon, Ben Meehan landing an excellent touchline conversion to put the hosts 7-0 up.

Pirates fought back and reduced the arrears courtesy of a Will Cargill penalty, and the visitors then went in front when wing Robin Wedlake shrugged off a couple of tackles to scorch home in the right corner from 35 metres out. Cargill was unable to add the extras, and it was Irish who took a grip on the game for the remainder of the opening half.

They went back in front on 18 minutes when Teofilo Paulo got hold of the ball from another line-out near the Pirates’ line, and the powerful second row barrelled over for his side’s second score.

A brilliant break from centre Brendan Macken set up Exiles third score of the afternoon, his superb run ending with an unselfish pass which allowed debutant wing Ollie Hassell-Collins to dot down in the left-hand corner. A superb touchline conversion from Meehan extended the hosts’ advantage to 19-8.

The bonus-point was secured on 33 minutes when the pack again showed their force. After winning a scrum penalty, Exiles kicked to the corner and another rampaging drive ended with Danny Hobbs-Awoyemi the grateful beneficiary of a five-pointer, Meehan’s precise kicking again adding the extras to make it 26-8.

The hosts came near to bagging a fifth try of the first period on the stroke of half-time, but Pirates finally found a way to deal with the driving maul to ensure they went in no further behind.

Their stay of execution was shortlived, though, as Exiles scored early in the second half, the forwards again at the root of the try. A strong scrum on half way allowed No. 8 Matt Rogerson to bulldoze his way upfield, and when he found scrum-half Brendand McKibbin, the Australian’s mazy run ended with him just reaching the line for a fine score. Meehan again made no mistake and it appeared Irish were cruising to an easy victory.

Pirates had not read that particular script, however, and launched a furious fightback.

They cut the deficit on 49 minutes when a slip in the hosts’ defence created a gap which full back Kyle Moyle had no hesitation in exploiting, the Pirate showing good pace to cross the whitewash before Cargill converted.

Worse was to follow for Exiles as American centre Bryce Campbell was harshly sin-binned for an alleged high tackle, and after Pirates opted to kick for the corner, the maul was brought down and referee Ian Tempest awarded a penalty try. Believing Irish were repeatedly infringing, he also sent Blair Cowan for a 10-minute rest to reduce the home side to 13 men.

However, Exiles showed why they are favourites for the title by overcoming their numerical disadvantage impressively, their line only breached right at the end of the 10-minute spell when Moyle went over for his second. Cargill’s conversion cut the gap to just four points in front of an increasingly agitated and vocal home crowd, largely irritated by their opinion of the officiating.

Yet Exiles regrouped strongly when back to 15 men, and they had the final say appropriately through the pack. Another surging drive ended with McNally dotting down for his second, and while Meehan’s attempted conversion narrowly missed to the left of the uprights, the game was secure as Tempest blew for full-time to ensure man-of-the-match Ojo enjoyed a perfect game to move into the record books.

London Irish: McLean, Ojo, Macken (Hearn, 76), Campbell, Hassell-Collins, Meehan, McKibbin (Myler, 74), Hobbs-Awoyemi (Cillers, 50), Matu’u (Porecki, 65), Hoskins, McNally, Paulo (Maddison, 74), Schatz (Gilsenan, 58), Cowan, Rogerson

Cornish Pirates: Moyle, Wedlake, Koster, Patterson (Alvarez, 65), Strong, Cargill, Day, Andrew (Walker, 48), Cowan-Dickie (Matevesi, 55), Owlett (Gendall, 64), Freeman, Beeukeboom, McRae (Schwartz, 74), Bolwell, Duncan

Referee: Ian Tempest

Attendance: 3,406