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While the Stade des Colombes has lost much of the style that saw it host the Olympic Games in 1924 and 1928, the latter the stage for Harold Abrahams legendary “Chariots of Fire” race win, the stadium still boasts a fine playing surface and on a dry, cool evening in the western suburbs of Paris, it was the scene of a win by London Irish that revitalised the club’s prospects in Pool 2 of this season’s Heineken Cup.
Racing Metro 92 are currently enjoying success in France’s Top 14 league and there was much anticipation before the match among the club’s supporters that another home victory was in prospect. The opening exchanges of the match encouraged such feelings as the home side launched a determined series of attacks into the Exiles’ half and were rewarded with a penalty after just three minutes for a scrum offence that full back Gaetan Germain confidently slotted between the uprights.
Both teams showed an encouraging appetite for playing with ball in hand and if the home backs looked the more threatening, the visitors showed confidence in their ability on the counter-attack.
After ten minutes Irish’s first period of sustained pressure resulted in a scoring opportunity when referee Nigel Owens penalised Racing for not rolling clear at the breakdown, however Dan Bowden missed the target.
Minutes later another attack by Irish orchestrated by Darren Allinson with the help of Matt Garvey and Dan Bowden, gave Joe Ansbro a try-scoring opportunity, however, after a consultation with the television match official, referee Owens didn’t award the try. Unfortunately for the Exiles, Bowden was injured in the passage of play and was replaced by Adrian Jarvis. Irish had the consolation of a penalty which Delon Armitage kicked successfully to open his team’s account.
Co-incidentally, Racing also lost their talismanic fly half, the Argentine international, Juan Martin Hernandez, to injury in the 17th minute and although he was to return, his eventual absence did impact on his team.
The home side restored their lead through Germain’s second successful penalty in the 20th minute. Within a minute that lead went from three to eight points when in a moment of brilliance from the re-start, Racing moved the ball left to the veteran Fijian winger Sireli Bobo. His measured chip over the Irish defence, pick-up and exchange of passes with Virimi Vakatawa was perfect in its execution and resulted in a touchdown in the left corner. Germain missed the conversion to leave the score at 11-3.
Four minutes later the home team went further ahead through a drop goal by Jonathan Wisniewski after good work by his forwards.
Irish responded in the best possible way from the re-start. Bryn Evans led the surge into the Racing half. A well judged grubber kick by Jarvis was picked up by Topsy Ojo whose telling intervention set Jonathan Spratt through for a try to the left of the posts. Jarvis added the extras to bring his team back into the game with 14 minutes of the half remaining.
The exchanges lacked nothing in terms of commitment as both teams probed for a decisive score before the interval. Such was the physicality of the contest that the Exiles lost Chris Hala’Ufia with a shoulder injury in the 28th minute, he was replaced by Jamie Gibson.
Irish had to withstand another series of attacks before half time to keep the score at 14-10, yet the confident and competent manner with which they did so augured well for the second half.
Irish emerged for the second half and it was clear from the early exchanges that the players believed they could match the physicality and pace of the home team and secure a result. That belief was reinforced after just two minutes when Racing conceded a penalty that Jarvis struck cleanly to reduce the deficit to one point.
The fly half was unlucky with another penalty attempt two minutes later. Such was the visitors’ growing impact the home team struggled to escape from their half.
David Paice and Garvey with the support of Ofisa Treviranus were relentless in their ball-carrying and the tempo with which Irish were playing repeatedly stretched the home defence.
The pressure finally told in the 54th minute when Irish were awarded a scrum in midfield. The set piece which had been under pressure in the first half held its own, and Allinson whipped the ball away from the base of the scrum to Ansbro on his left. The Scottish international who had teased the defence all through the match, finally got his chance and brushed through two tackles to score his first try for London Irish. Jarvis kicked the conversion to give his team the lead for the first time.
Sensing that the balance of the game had shifted in their favour, Irish maintained the pace and the pressure and in the 57th minute had another attacking scrum in midfield. Once again Gibson and Allinson combined off the back of the set piece, this time the scrum half found Adam Thompstone who struck with a try on the left. The conversion was kicked by Jarvis and Irish led 27-14.
As the game entered its final quarter, the passionate home supporters encouraged their team to counter-attack and they were not disappointed. In what was to prove to be the turning point of the match, Racing took the game deep into the Exiles’ 22 where they launched an assault on the visitors’ try line.
Irish defended like men possessed, the forwards were at the heart of the action keeping the mighty Sebastian Chabal at bay time and again. After what seemed an hour to the hundreds of travelling Irish supporters, the home side eventually conceded a penalty and Armitage cleared to touch.
Both teams introduced replacements as players tired under the continuing up-tempo exchanges. The Exiles’ supporters cheered the arrival of Bob Casey as he returned to first team action. He was joined by Faan Rautenbach and with the indefatigable Declan Danaher as captain, Irish had the experience to steer them through the final ten minutes.
Confident that attack was the best form of defence, Irish pressed Racing in their half and it was noticeable that without the guidance of Hernandez, the home team’s backs struggled. The earlier slickness that had characterised their passing was lacking and it was no surprise when Thompstone intercepted a loose pass in the 74th minute to race through unchallenged for Irish’s fourth and bonus point-winning try. Jarvis added the extras to leave the score 34-10.
Racing ensured an exciting finale to the match by attacking Irish in their 22 and Jonathan Spratt had to take a yellow card for the team for persistent slowing of the ball. Despite that Irish were not to be denied and more brave defence ensured Racing finished the match without scoring in the second half. A fact that in itself that speaks volumes about the London Irish performance.
Speaking after the match London Irish Head Coach Toby Booth said, “We’re still very much in the tournament and fighting for our place in it. Once again, we’ve come away and proved that we can compete at the top level in Europe.”
While all concerned with London Irish – management, players and supporters alike, will enjoy a famous victory, all will realise that this superb performance in Paris will count for nothing unless it is built upon next weekend and in coming months.
Scorers. Racing Metro 92: Try: Bobo (21); Conversion: Germain. Penalty goals: Germain 2 (3, 20); Drop Goal: Wisniewski (25). London Irish: Tries: Spratt (26), Ansbro (54), Thompstone 2 (57, 74); Conversions: Jarvis 4. Penalty goals: D Armitage (17), Jarvis (42).
Scoring sequence (Racing Metro 92 first): 3-0, 3-3, 6-3, 11-3, 14-3, 14-10 (half-time) 14-13, 14-20, 14-27, 14-34.
Racing Metro 92: 15. G Germain; 14. S Bobo; 13. V Vakatawa; 12. J Matavesi; 11. J Imhoff; 10. J Hernandez (rep: J Wisniewski, 37); 9. M Loree (rep: S Descons, 70); 1. J Brugnaut (rep: E Ben Arous, 58), 2. T Bianchin (rep: G Arganese, 67), 3. J Orlandi (rep: J Coetzee, 70); 4. L Nallet (Captain), 5. J Nailiko (rep: F Van Der Merwe, 45); 6. A Batut (rep: J Leo’o, 70); 7. B Le Roux (rep: S Chabal, 45); 8. J Cronje.
London Irish: 15. D Armitage, 14. T Ojo, 13. J Ansbro, 12. J Spratt, 11. A Thompstone, 10. D Bowden (rep: A Jarvis, 14), 9. D Allinson (rep: P Hodgson, 79), 1. C Dermody (captain)(rep: M Lahiff, 65), 2. D Paice (rep: B Blaney, 79), 3. P Ion (F Rautenbach, 70), 4. B Evans, 5. M Garvey, 6. D Danaher, 7. O Treviranus (rep: B Casey, 70), 8. C Hala’Ufia (rep: J Gibson, 28).
Referee: Mr N Owens (WRU)