Leinster's Heineken Cup defence opener ended in anti-climax on Friday, with London Irish pipping the champions to a 12-9 victory.
This was not a Heineken Cup classic, but it was classic Heineken Cup. Neither side gave away a blade of grass of territory with ease, forcing the fly-halves and full-backs into a gruelling territorial battle of the boot. The discipline of the defensive patterns from both teams was as admirable as it was stifling. Both teams dug as deep as they could but there was just no space to be found.
Tom Homer of London Irish was a frequent target for high balls early on, with Leinster's kickers perhaps attacking his inexperience, but he passed the test with a couple of wobbles. Beyond that, Leinster had few ideas.
The physicality of the Exiles defence proved that they have some concrete foundations to support the pretty facework they've been showing off so far in the Guinness Premiership season. Leinster threw all the heavy furniture at the Exiles' defence, but the white wall did not budge one inch. Frustration set into the blue shirts and Irish could well have nicked it.
Nick Kennedy and Bob Casey had a whale of a time at the line-outs stealing all manner of Leinster ball - they had pilfered five from eleven midway through the second half. It evened up the defeats they were suffering in the kicking battle and meant that Leinster were forced into other means - often illegal - to stifle the Exiles' attacks and retain their ball.
Things might have been different had the Leinstermen managed to take either of their two gilt-edged first-half opportunities. In the first minute, after some ferocious rucking, Brian O'Driscoll broke away towards the Exiles' posts but found himself short of the necessary immediate support in the tackle by Sailosi Tagicakibau.
In the 24th minute, Isa Nacewa broke and offloaded to Luke Fitzgerald, but again there was nobody on his shoulder as Chris Malone made the cover tackle.
In contrast, Irish hung in there and took opportunities without ever really making one themselves. Their scrum was under heavy pressure early on, but strangely, the sin-binning of hooker David Paice - along with Leinster number eight for fighting - reinforced them as Danie Coetzee came on for the set pieces. Even when Paice came back on, the scrum problem had been shored up. Another Leinster threat nullified.
Gradually, as Leinster's superiority up front seeped away and Steffon Armitage found his moments to steal the ball, the men in blue conceded more and more penalties. Peter Hewat landed two in the first half, but couldn't find his radar with one in the second, nor range with another. But Jonny Sexton did not get those opportunities in the second half as Leinster's ideas ran dry. It became London Irish's match to win or lose, with the crowd noise falling away as gradually as Leinster's pattern of attack.
Ryan Lamb gave his team the lead with a majestic penalty on 66 minutes, but there were more moments for the Exiles to survive.
Steffon Armitage's work at the breakdown was phenomenal, never more so than when a sliced kick set O'Driscoll away and then Fitzgerald, with Armitage slowing the ball down at the latter's tackle just enough for the white defence to re-organise and force Sexton into a forward pass.
Discipline had to hold, but it didn't. Chris Hala'Ufia was penalised for an injudicious moment with the boot and Sexton equalised at 9-9.
But then with a minute to go, Kevin McLaughlin was caught offside, and Lamb stepped up to land a majestic penalty from 40m to make it 12-9.
There was still more to come. Leinster strung phase after phase together across the field in the final 30 seconds, with Jonny Sexton and then Bernard Jackman so nearly getting away. Leinster were furious that there was no award of a high tackle on Sexton by Hala'Ufia, but the Irish defence, through hook and crook, held firm for a famous win.
Man of the match: In a game of breakdowns, Steffon Armitage's work was magnificent and went much of the way to stumping Leinster's ambitions. But he might like to share the champers with Nick Kennedy for the work at the line-out.
Pens: Sexton 3
For London Irish:
Pens: Hewat 2, Lamb 2
Yellow cards: Heaslip (Leinster, 28, fighting), Paice (London Irish, 28, fighting)
Leinster: 15 Isa Nacewa, 14 Shane Horgan, 13 Brian O'Driscoll, 12 Gordon D'Arcy, 11 Luke Fitzgerald, 10 Johanthan Sexton, 9 Eoin Reddan, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Shane Jennings, 6 Kevin McLaughlin, 5 Nathan Hines, 4 Leo Cullen, 3 Mike Ross, 2 John Fogarty, 1 Cian Healy
Replacements: 16 Bernard Jackman, 17 Ronan McCormack, 18 CJ Van Der Linde, 19 Malcolm O'Kelly, 20 Sean O'Brien, 21 Stephen Keogh, 22 Shaun Berne, 23 Rob Kearney.
London Irish: 15 Peter Hewat, 14 Tom Homer, 13 Elvis Seveali'i, 12 Seilala Mapusua, 11 Sailosi Tagicakibau, 10 Chris Malone, 9 Paul Hodgson, 8 Chris Hala'Ufia, 7 Steffon Armitage, 6 Declan Danaher, 5 Bob Casey, 4 Nick Kennedy, 3 Faan Rautenbach, 2 David Paice, 1 Clarke Dermody.
Replacements: 16 Danie Coetzee, 17 Dan Murphy, 18 Paulica Ion, 19 Andy Perry, 20 Richard Thorpe, 21 Jamie Lennard, 22 Ryan Lamb, 23 Alfredo Lalanne.
Referee: Romain Poite (France)
Assistant referees: Eric Soulan (France), Bernard Dal Maso (France)
Television match official: Jean-Christophe Gastou (France)