In a battle of iron wills, it was London Irish who emerged victorious from the first Heineken Cup quarter-final on Saturday, beating Perpignan 20-9 at the Madejski.
Peter Hewat punished the Catalans' second-half indiscipline with some terrific kicking from the tee, while his line-kicking from hand kept the visitors well away from the Exiles' try-line.
It wasn't exactly a game of two halves, Irish had probably just the upper hand in the first half as well, but the difference between the periods was marked. Where the Catalans had rushed up with structure and timing in defence in the first forty, their attempts at disruption and demolition in the second grew quickly more and more ragged. In the first half, the visitors had shown flickers of imagination, but the fires failed to ignite in the second half - the only flash of red was the card flourished at Viliami Vaki in the final minute for a stupid punch.
The Exiles' game was based around pouring water upon any opposition flame, rather than sparking anything of their own. They did try to set things alight in the first 20 minutes, but with Perpignan's defence well-drilled at least in terms of ensuring the opposition was covered from touchline to touchline, the risks were quickly eschewed in favour of the kind of stuff that wins World Cups and which the new laws in the south are trying to do away with. It was thus ironic, and possibly a little treasuresome to Exiles fans, that Percy Montgomery was on the receiving end.
There were two key areas: line-out and second-half discipline. The Exiles' line-out was magnificent, losing only 2 of 21 on the throw and stealing a further six from the opposition. 21 throws is a lot to have, but when the ball was kicked open, Hewat would usually return it with interest and into touch back near the Perpignan tryline. The Catalans thus opted to keep pumping it to touch upfield rather than have any kind of touchline set piece near their own in-goal, running it from deep never seemed to be considered.
The first half penalty count was 7-5 in favour of the visitors. In the second half, the Irish did not add to that seven, while Perpignan kept racking them up. Hewat kept racking up the points as a consequence, and when he made it 20-9 just after the hour mark, that was pretty much that.
That first half was fine Heineken fare: rugged, tense, technical, and passionate. The home side placed a couple of early markers of intent by either spraying the ball wide to Sailosi Tagicakibau and Topsy Ojo quickly, or bringing them - particularly Tagicakibau - off their wings to get some early pace on the ball. It didn't open things up much, with the red-shirted back-row mowing down anything clad in green, often well behind the gain line. The early hits were monsters
Montgomery opened the scoring with a penalty after a high tackle by Ojo on Chris Cusiter, and there was an early turning point shortly after. Perpignan took a line-out, and Ovidiu Tonita, Nathan Hines, and Cusiter all made good ground to take the red pack to the 5m line. Henry Tuilagi then had a go, but knocked the ball on. The Irish scrum was almost shoved off its own ball, and conceded a 5m scrum to Perpignan. It was the only moment the Irish were truly on the rack all game, and the visitors botched it when they spread it wide.
Tagicakibau intercepted at a crucial moment after 20 minutes, when Perpignan had managed a rare steal at line-out time, and the subsequent counter-attack yielded a penalty chance for Hewat to equalise, and then he gave his side the lead a couple of minutes later after Mike Catt's clearance had Montgomery and Cusiter telling each other to pick the ball up.
Montgomery equalised when Tonita forced a penalty with good support of Jean-Philippe Grandclaude's break, but then Irish drew the first blood, when Catt's cross-kick was whipped off Christophe Manas' fingertips by Declan Danaher, who dived over for the score.
Catt left the pitch shortly after, his knee still smarting from a tackle by Tonita earlier in the game, and was replaced by Shane Geraghty, whose control of the game bore many of the hallmarks of the man who had made way for him on the day.
Perpignan had ten minutes to get something back before half-time, and they went gamely about their task. Marius Tincu caught the Exiles pack napping with a couple of cheeky quick throws and made good ground, and then the game's second turning point: Paul Hodgson thumping Adrien Planté into touch just as the winger was diving for a try. Montgomery did make it 11-9 from a penalty, but it seemed little reward.
After the break, the story is simple. The Exiles ruled the roost at the line-outs, Peter Hewat kept on kicking the ball into touch deep in Catalan territory, and punishing every indiscretion friom the visitors. Three penalties between minutes 51 and 63 sealed the game.
Other kicks from hand kept the Irish at the safer end of the pitch - the ball barely came near the Irish tryline until the final minute, when Vaki's frustration at being knocked into touch just before scoring boiled over. It was all very calm, controlled, and clinical stuff, and Perpignan had no answer.
But... the Irish didn't seem to offer much in attack, and it should cause a twinge of concern. The Exiles now have a home semi-final, which ought, on form, to be against Toulouse. You need a little more than cool heads against them.
Man of the match: Peter Hewat stood out most on watching because all of his good work was very public, but the real fuel in the Irish engine-room was from line-out supremo Nick Kennedy. He was magnificent.
Moment of the match: Only one try, and not much in attack beyond that, so Declan Danaher's dive was the moment to brighten our day.
Villain of the match: The almost-appropriately-named Viliami Vaki for his punch. So pointless.
For London Irish:
Pens: Hewat 5
Pens: Montgomery 3
Red card: Vaki (Perpignan, 80, punching)
London Irish: 15 Peter Hewat, 14 Topsy Ojo, 13 Gonzalo Tiesi, 12 Seilala Mapusua, 11 Sailosi Tagicakibau, 10 Mike Catt, 9 Paul Hodgson, 8 Phil Murphy, 7 Steffon Armitage, 6 Declan Danaher, 5 Bob Casey (c), 4 Nick Kennedy, 3 Faan Rautenbach, 2 David Paice, 1 Clarke Dermody.
Replacements: 16 Tonga Lea'aetoa, 17 Danie Coetzee, 18 James Hudson, 19 Richard Thorpe, 20 Delon Armitage, 21 Peter Richards, 22 Shane Geraghty.
Perpignan: 15 Percy Montgomery, 14 Christophe Manas, 13 David Marty, 12 Jean-Philippe Grandclaude, 11 Adrien Plante, 10 Nicolas Laharrague, 9 Chris Cusiter, 8 Henry Tuilagi, 7 Ovidiu Tonita, 6 Viliami Vaki, 5 Nathan Hines, 4 Rimas Alvarez Kairelis (c), 3 Nicolas Mas, 2 Marius Tincu, 1 Sebastien Chobet.
Replacements: 16 Guilhem Guirado, 17 Perry Freshwater, 18 Sebastian Bozzi, 19 Christophe Porcu, 20 Nicolas Durand, 21 Gavin Hume, 22 Damien Chouly.
Referee: Alain Rolland (Ireland)
Touch judges: Simon McDowell (Ireland), Colin Stanley (Ireland)
Television match official: John Sheehan (Ireland)
By Danny Stephens