A 14-man London Irish side suffered a frustrating start to their Heineken Cup campaign with a rollercoaster defeat to a power-packed Montpellier team on a freezing evening in Brentford.
The French champions were 24-6 down at one stage but made the most of their numerical advantage to make an early impact in Pool B.
The home side were a player short for the majority of the game and ultimately paid the price with the centre Thomas Darmon scoring two of the visitors’ four tries and England’s Zach Mercer claiming the man of the match award.
Among a truly multinational cast of players, however, it was the representatives of another proud rugby nation who really stood out. All three of Irish’s tries were scored by Argentina internationals, with the outstanding Juan Martin González scoring two and the winger Lucio Cinti one.
Less helpful was the dismissal of the former Pumas captain Agustín Creevy, who departed the scene after only 33 minutes when he was sent off for a high, no arms tackle. It proved fatal to Irish’s chances of victory as Montpellier scored 26 unanswered points to wrest back control of the match.
The visitors did have a late wobble when the replacement Leo Coly was sent to the sin-bin and the in-form Ollie Hassell-Collins almost scored in the left corner, but there was to be no great escape. The Exiles must now try their luck against the Stormers in the far warmer environs of Cape Town next week. “We know it’s there and that is the frustration,” said Declan Kidney, Irish’s director of rugby.
For anyone seeking a chilled-out Friday night, west London was definitely the place to be. Short of kicking off this season’s Champions Cup in the Arctic Circle, it is hard to imagine a major rugby tournament being launched in colder conditions, and the 30-degree temperatures forecast for the Sharks-Harlequins fixture in Durban this weekend were conspicuously absent.
It understandably limited the attendance, a shame given this was, remarkably, Irish’s first appearance in this tournament for 11 years. The Exiles players, though, were properly revved up, particularly during a purple patch in the second quarter when Montpellier were reduced to 14 men by the sin-binning of Enzo Forletta.
The excellent González scored the first from close range and, within five minutes, Irish had another, a scything break by Hassell-Collins supplying the momentum and a sumptuous offload from Creevy putting his winger Cinti over for a second.
At 17-6 everything was perfectly set up for the home side, only for Creevy’s evening to end abruptly. The Montpellier full-back Anthony Bouthier had already been tackled by the marauding Adam Coleman when the Pumas hooker caught him with a high shoulder to the head.
The impact was not as forceful as it might have been, however, and Kidney felt Creevy was a touch unlucky. “People will have their own opinions but there was a tackled player there on the way down.”
It said plenty for Irish’s attitude, even so, that they still declined to shut up shop with Montpellier restored to 15 players. This time it was the talented Ben Loader who skipped past a couple of defenders and his well-timed pass put the energetic González over for his second score.
Paddy Jackson’s conversion made it 24-6 but, just when it seemed the visitors might be prematurely frozen out, they hit back with a try of their own. The video referee took a while to confirm their South African scrum-half Cobus Reinach had legally poached the ball from the hands of Irish’s captain, Matt Rogerson, but the try stood and Louis Carbonel’s conversion narrowed the half-time margin to 11 points.
With the flanker González forced to start throwing into the lineout in Creevy’s absence, it was always going to be hard for Irish to hang on. Sure enough a slick backline move put the alert Darmon over on the left and more intensive forward pressure set up Alexandre Bécognée and Darmon again for the tries which regained the initiative for the French side as the temperature plummeted further.
Among those also out braving the cold were the England coaches Richard Cockerill and Matt Proudfoot, still on patrol despite the sacking of the head coach Eddie Jones in the week.
The RFU’s director of performance rugby, Conor O’Shea, would not be drawn on the specifics of Steve Borthwick’s appointment but suggested the contractual loose ends would be tied up sooner rather than later.
“We all know where we’re headed and we’ll try and conclude it as quickly as we can,” he said.