LONDON Irish took a major step towards the Greene King IPA Championship title with a come-from-behind 26-23 bonus-point victory at Bedford Blues.

Exiles stay nine points clear at the top of the table following a hard-fought success against a side who had previously only been beaten once in the league at home all season, despite trailing 16-7 just before the half-time interval.

Declan Kidney’s side started the brighter, but for the second week in succession fell behind to an intercept try, on this occasion Ryan Hutler the beneficiary after he took a Jake Sharp pass before crossing the whitewash. Having created the try, Sharp knocked over the extras to put his side 7-0 in front.

The visitors responded superbly, though, and a wonderful break from young fly-half Jacob Atkins enabled Brendan Macken to go over for Exiles’ first score. Ben Meehan made no mistake from the tee to level matters.

Bedford moved back in front on 17 minutes, however, Sharp slotting a penalty, and another followed shortly after when Irish failed to roll away at the breakdown.

Things got even worse for the away side in the 27th minute, prop Ollie Hoskins sin-binned for infringing at the breakdown. Sharp was again deadly accurate with his shot at goal and Bedford led 16-7 with a man advantage.

An injury to Meehan saw further disruption for Irish as Scott Steele was brought on at scrum-half earlier than he may have expected, and worse was to follow when Ben Loader also had to be substituted, Ollie Hassell-Collins coming on on the wing.

Yet despite the setbacks, Irish struck a vital blow on the stroke of half-time. After hammering away at the try-line, Steele darted over to reduce the deficit to four points, and while Atkins could not land the conversion, Exiles trailed just 16-12 at the break.

With the slope and wind to their advantage in the second period, the visitors began strongly and twice came close to adding a third score, firstly when a tackle on Atkins forced a knock-on five metres from the line, and secondly when Hassell-Collins’ inside ball just failed to find Josh McNally.

However, Irish hit the front for the first time on 51 minutes, some powerful charges from the forwards setting a base before the ball made its way to Terrence Hepetema, the inside centre doing well to take a Steele pass and dot down. Atkins nailed the conversion to put Exiles 19-16 up.

Bedford rallied at the start of the final quarter and only some brilliant defensive work from Saia Fainga’a earned a penalty to stop what could have led to a home try.

Yet at the other end, Irish proved more clinical, scoring the ultimately match-winning try almost immediately after. Replacement No. 8 Ofisa Treviranus entered play and scored with almost his first touch of the ball, the Samoan powerhouse stretching out to get the ball down from close range. Atkins was again on target with the conversion to give his side a 10-point cushion.

Blues responded valiantly, though, and set-up a frantic finale with a try six minutes from time. Matt Worley’s break enabled Lewis Robling to go over under the posts, and with Sharp adding the extras, the gap had been cut to just three points.

However, Bedford conceded a penalty after reclaiming the restart, and with Atkins booting the ball to touch, Exiles forwards were able to control play through the final few phases and ensure a crucial victory for the visitors.

London Irish host Coventry next Saturday (3pm).

Bedford Blues: Lane; Hutler, Robling, Czekaj (Worley, 35), Tapley (Adamson, 58); Sharp, Lennon; McCarthy (Trinder, 58), Clare (Fields, 61), Cooper (Penny, 40), Carrick-Smith, Flanagan (capt), Curry (Buggea, 53), Worthington (Ryan, 58), Williams

London Irish: Veitokani; Macken, Stephenson, Hepetema, Loader (Hassell-Collins, 37); Atkins, Meehan (Steele, 31); Reid (Cilliers, 55), Fainga’a (Adams, 74), Hoskins, van der Merwe, Paulo (Cilliers, 29-40), McNally (capt)(Tuisue, 55), Ioane (Treviranus, 62), Schatz