London Irish already have an impressive roster of exciting young English-qualified talent and another name can now be added to the list. Michael Dykes has plenty of good rugby ahead of him but an alert hat-trick of tries on his Premiership debut ensured he overshadowed even the fit-again Henry Arundell on a highly encouraging day for the Exiles.
There are fruit machines that revolve slower than the helter-skelter games in which Irish specialise but here there was also a decent pay-out to enjoy as they bolstered their chances of a top-four finish with a convincing bonus-point victory. If a first-half red card for the Quins captain, Stephan Lewies, significantly shaped the contest, the hosts fully deserved their six-try success.
Along with the energy of the 21-year-old Dykes, who is from Berkshire and has already represented England at age-group level, the sight of Arundell back on a rugby field for the first time since late October was another clear plus for the Exiles in a season which has too often involved narrow defeats and red cards.
England, with Henry Slade now out with a hip injury, have recalled Leicester’s Anthony Watson to their Six Nations squad but the Irish head coach, Les Kiss, suggested Arundell would also be ready if and when he is required. “I wouldn’t be afraid to throw him in,” Kiss said. “The boy’s got something special.”
Here, too, was a glimpse of what might yet be possible this season for Irish, who have now won four of their past five Premiership games. If a nasty-looking shoulder injury for the unlucky Adam Coleman was a blow, the obvious talent of the the Kiwi-reared Chandler Cunningham-South, still just 19 and part of England’s under-20 squad, Tom Pearson and their Argentinian replacement Juan Martin González bodes well for their play-off prospects. This was the Exiles’ biggest attendance of the season and once the grounds harden up in spring their attacking brand of rugby should be even more watchable.
There was also the satisfaction of atoning for their last-gasp defeat against Quins at the end of October with the third-placed Exeter now only three points above them. As well as underlining the competitiveness of this year’s Premiership it also raised further questions about how Quins will fare over the Six Nations period without Marcus Smith and Alex Dombrandt to steer them around the field. “We’re a mid-table side, that’s the brutal reality,” the Quins director of rugby, Tabai Matson, said.
Matson also did not dispute the 22nd-minute red card against Lewies, who on the face of it could have no complaints under the laws. His shoulder to the head of a stooping Cunningham-South looked worse with every slow-motion replay and there was no attempt to wrap the arm. Then again, tacklers are not technically supposed to have their heads below waist level, leaving the Quins captain with no real legal target at which to aim. So what was he meant to do? Matson is among those who believe this is the biggest conundrum now facing rugby’s beleaguered guardians.
Dykes’s triple whammy, meanwhile, made him only the third player after Gloucester’s Lesley Vainokolo and Northampton’s Courtnal Skosan to score a hat-trick on his Premiership debut. Swift, elusive and with an eye for the line, Dykes had his first try on the board after just seven minutes, courtesy of some slick work inside him, as Quins went 14-0 down quicker than you could say “Not another slow start”.
In addition to Cunningham-South’s early score, James Stokes was first to react to a loose ball to register Irish’s third before Dykes, having also served 10 minutes in the sin-bin for failing to intercept a looping ball which also led to a penalty try being awarded, underlined the promise he had shown previously with a hat-trick in a Premiership Cup game against Saracens. Even before Joe Marler departed to the sin-bin, leaving Quins with just 13 players for the final 10 minutes, it was a green day to savour.