This season's London Irish European campaign came to an abrupt end in the impressive surroundings of the Palais des Sport in Narbonne on Saturday evening. Going into the game with a seven point lead, Irish succumbed to a determined first half performance by the home team that left the Exiles with too much to do in the second period to have any chance of winning the game.
Starting in dry, windy conditions it took Narbonne just 12 minutes to regain the aggregate lead in the two match series. Two penalties and a drop goal by fly half Cedric Rosalen gave his team the platform they needed. He was to add a further penalty in the 16th minute before a disastrous seven-minute spell either side of the half-hour mark extinguished any chance Irish had of winning the game.
To nobody's surprise the home team started at a frantic pace and it quickly became apparent that the Welsh referee, Mr Owen, was to have a vital impact on the outcome of the game. In the second minute Irish were penalised for offside. Rosalen with a strengthening wind at his back sent the ball between the posts. Four minutes later Irish conceded a second penalty for not releasing the ball quickly enough, Rosalen was successful again.
Encouraged by this early success Narbonne ran at Irish driving through midfield. In the 12th minute a ruck formed in centre-field 25 metres from the Irish goal-line. Scrum half Mathieu Siro fired a pass back to Rosalen who dropped a perfect goal from 30 metres.
Irish found themselves suffering from another questionable offside decision from the referee in the 16th minute. Rosalen was successful with the penalty for a score of 12-0. Then the rain came – in torrents, making what had been a fine playing surface treacherous and ball handling difficult. Irish tried to play the game with ball in hand and secured a rare kickable penalty 25 metres from goal on the left. Mark Mapletoft's kick into the strong wind went wide.
The Exiles' misfortune continued four minutes later when an attempted pass from Michael Horak to Paul Sackey, on a break down the right wing, was intercepted by Julien Candelon. The speedy, left winger raced unopposed to the line to score. Rosalen converted.
Things were to get even more difficult for Irish seven minutes later when a miss-kick ended up with Frederic Lartigue, the Narbonne right wing. He had the strength and pace to beat the visitors' defence and score in the right corner. Rosalen converted once again to give his side a 26-0 lead.
Thirty-five minutes had elapsed before Irish troubled the scorekeeper through a Mapletoft penalty. As the game moved into first half injury time Irish repeatedly struggled to cross the gain line with ball in hand and when they resorted to kicking, inevitably it only served to set the stage for a counter attack by the home side. The referee's whistle for half-time brought welcome relief for the Exiles.
From the re-start the storm continued both on and off the pitch for Irish. Despite the introduction of Nick Greenstock at inside centre for the injured Rob Hoadley at half-time and Declan Danaher for Michael Haslett, two minutes into the half, the visitors were forced to defend deep. Each time Irish tried to use the wind – now at their back – to clear their lines, the ball was returned by the accurate and tactically astute Rosalen.
Irish lost Phil Murphy, whose ball carrying skills had been one of the more threatening aspects of their attack, to a hamstring injury in the 56th minute.
As the game entered its third quarter Irish enjoyed one of their best periods of pressure as they attacked five metres from the Narbonne goal-line. However brave defence by the home team saw off the challenge.
Narbonne's only score of the second half came through Rosalen's fourth penalty in the 65th minute. Three minutes later Irish put together a move down the right that saw Michael Horak break clear and run through to touch down. Mapletoft converted.
Thereafter a series of substitutions by both sides disrupted what little pattern there was to play. As the final whistle drew near it was Narbonne that were in the ascendant.
Among the few positives Irish could take from the game were the senior team debuts of Adam Halsey and Rhys Buckler in the front row. Both of the young Academy players showed considerable promise for the future.
Scorers: Narbonne: Tries: Candelon (25min), Lartigue (32). Conversions: Rosalen 2. Drop goal: Rosalen (12). Penalty goals: Rosalen 4 (2, 6, 16, 66). London Irish: Try: Horak (68min). Conversion: Mapletoft. Penalty goal: Mapletoft (35).
Scoring sequence (Narbonne first): 3-0, 6-0, 9-0, 12-0, 19-0, 26-0, 26-3 (half-time) 29-3, 29-10.
Narbonne: N Nadau, F Lartigue (rep: L Ferrerer, 69), D Douy, L Baluc-Rittener (rep: P-M Garcia, 40+4), J Candelon, C Rosalen (rep: C McMullen, 76), M Siro, L Martine (rep: S Petit, 40), F Rofes, M Scelzo, M Blair, O Olibeau (captain)(rep:M Sierra, 60), P Short (rep: J Garcia, 62), D Hunter (rep: B Giacobbi, 51), G Longo.
London Irish: M Horak (rep: K Barrett, 85), P Sackey, G Appleford, R Hoadley (rep: N Greenstock, 40), J Bishop, M Mapletoft, D Edwards, D Wheatley (rep: A Flavin, 80), N Drotske, A Halsey (rep: R Buckler, 66), R Strudwick (captain), B Casey, P Gustard, M Haslett (rep: D Danaher, 42, P Murphy (rep: K Roche, 56).
Referee: N Owen (Wales)