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Playing away in France is never easy at any time. The detailed planning that goes into the team's logistics has a primary purpose and that is to ensure that the squad remain focussed on the match.
Thursday afternoon's decision to postpone the game against Montauban from Saturday evening to Sunday afternoon because of the potential danger to the stadium caused by the fast-rising waters of the River Tarn, left the squad and team management with no choice but to stick to their original travel plans for the weekend. The knock-on effect of this was two days spent “in transit” to the game at a hotel just north of Toulouse. Because of the flooding no pitches were available to train on.
Among the fundamental differences between rugby and football from a playing perspective is the fact that football players can turn up for a game, kick a ball around and play themselves into the game. With rugby, players have to be mentally focussed from kick-off otherwise tackles are missed, passes go astray and a heavy price can be paid as London Irish found to their cost in Montauban this afternoon.
Playing on a heavy pitch on a cold, misty afternoon, Irish were first to score, three points from a Mark Mapletoft penalty in the second minute. They were not to trouble the score-keeper for the rest of the first quarter!
The home side levelled the score through a penalty by Sebastian Fauque in the tenth minute. Thereafter, the lively fly half was to have a major influence on the game. In the 17th minute Montauban launched a rolling maul from a line-out 25 metres from the Irish line, the Exiles were unable to defend against it and a try was scored by second row, Yogane Correra. Fauque converted.
Ten minutes later the fly half was at the heart of the action again. Montauban ran at Irish, passing the ball quickly and with confidence, they were stopped in mid-field just five metres from the Irish line. The ball was quickly re-cycled to Fauque who took it at speed and raced through to score in the left corner. He missed the conversion.
Irish tried to raise their game but were struggling against the big Montauban pack who were well led by their Russian captain , Serge Sergueev. The Exiles only reward for the extra effort was a second Mapletoft penalty in the 21st minute.
Irish conceded a third try in the 34th minute to another rolling maul, the scorer this time was Andre Gaubert, the hooker. Fauque's conversion attempt drifted left of the upright to leave the score 20-6 with six minutes of the first half remaining.
Realising the importance of another score before half-time Irish broke down the left wing. Ed Thrower passed to Justin Bishop speeding up on his inside. Confronted by two defenders Bishop cleverly kicked ahead and the Irish international used all his pace to beat full back, Cedric Bourcet and touch down in the left corner. Mapletoft converted brilliantly from the touchline. He was to be less fortunate in the second minute of injury time when a penalty from 38metres bounced off the upright to leave the score at half-time 20-13.
The interpretation of the offside rule by Scottish referee, Iain Rammage, caused irish problems in the first half and was to continue to do so in the second. In the 44th minute Mark Mapletoft cleverly chipped a penalty out left for Justin Bishop to run on to and attempt to score a try. Referee Rammage decided that Bishop had run offside and gave a penalty to the home team. Mapletoft was able to add three points from a penalty awarded for offside against the home team four minutes later.
Stung by the score, Montauban once more ran at Irish, good handling in mid-field saw the ball move right into the hands of Sebastian fauque once again. His clever chip and chase saw him clear through the Irish back line and left him with a clear run in to touch down for his team's fourth try. Outside centre, Pierre Vermis converted from the touch line.
Irish had dominated the line-out throughout the game thanks to excellent jumping by Nick Kennedy and Bob Casey. The dominance paid off in the 56th minute when a clean catch by Phil Murphy was passed to Kieron Dawson who used his power and pace to run through the home defence and score just left of the posts. Mapletoft converted to bring the score to 27-23.
Another Mapletoft penalty six minutes later brought Irish to within a point of Montauban. A series of substitutions by both teams over the following six minutes brought fresh impetus to the game but did little to create scoring opportunities for either side. Irish pressed a tiring home defence but failed to make the crucial breakthrough. Mapletoft missed a long range penalty in the 77th minute and saw an attempt at a drop goal drift right of the posts in the 80th minute.
As the match moved into injury time the home team raised themselves once again and were rewarded with a penalty in the fifth minute of injury time. Fauque had no trouble with the kick from 22 metres to give his team a four point winning margin of 30-26.
Commenting on the game, London Irish's Head Coach, Gary Gold said: "We were very disappointed not to come away with a win today. Under the circumstances we did well to fight back and come within four points of winning. We will be going all out to win the return leg at Madejski Stadium on Sunday next.";
Scorers: Montauban: Tries: Correa 17min, Fauque 27, 51, Gaubert 34. Conversions: Fauque, Vermis. Penalty goals: Fauque 2 (10, 85). London Irish: Tries: Bishop 38, Dawson 56. Conversions: Mapletoft 2. Penalty goals: Mapletoft 4 (2, 21, 48, 62).
Scoring sequence (Montauban): 0-3, 3-3, 10-3, 10-6, 15-6, 20-6, 20-13 (half-time) 20-16, 27-16, 27-23, 27-26, 30-26.
Referee: I Rammage (SRFU)