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Exiles will learn like Blues and come back stronger

BEFORE the ecstasy, there is the agony. If London Irish need consolation after the manner of their exit from the Heineken Cup, they need only to look at the experiences of Munster, Leinster and also Ireland.

All three have suffered crushing lows, near-misses and late defeats, and each has recovered, learnt and finally flourished.

That was the message Exiles' head coach Toby Booth delivered to his crestfallen players in the aftermath of the 11-11 draw at Twickenham that saw them miss out on a place in the quarter-finals. It is one they will carry with them for the rest of the season.

The manner in which Booth handled himself in the post-match inquest was exemplary; no blame or self-pity, but an acceptance that it was not Chris Malone's goal-kicking -- for once wayward -- that cost them a best runners-up spot, but the defeats by Scarlets in rounds two and five.

He can take consolation that his side went toe-to-toe with the reigning champions and did not lose. Yet he may have been worried by the warning from England scrum-half Paul Hodgson that time is not on the side of the present squad, and that for some of their southern-hemisphere alumni, the lure of home will sooner or later prove irresistible.

It would be a shame if this were to happen as London Irish, for whom Delon Armitage still looks rusty, came so close. Two minutes from time Malone kicked a second penalty, having earlier missed the straightforward conversion of his try and two penalty goals to put them 11-8 up.

Yet Leinster responded immediately from the kick-off, forcing a turnover before Jonathan Sexton calmly dropped a goal that guaranteed a home tie in the last eight. In the frantic finale, Malone had two further attempts at dropped goals of his own, but they went narrowly wide.

London Irish had chances but their attack lacked the collective sweep of Leinster's, their inroads made by individual brilliance rather than the orchestrated precision of the Blues.

The link between No8 and scrum-half let down the Exiles, and was exploited by Jamie Heaslip, who, when his pack was struggling, produced heroics. Leinster, for whom Isa Nacewa scored a try and Sexton a penalty goal, were showing their experience, and London Irish will soon get there.

© The Times, London