18 June 2022
London Irish 20-9 Perpignan– 5th April 2008 – Heineken Cup quarter-final
Tries: Declan Danaher
Penalties: Peter Hewat (5)
Union Sportive des Arlequins Perpignanais
Penalties: Percy Montgomery (3)
It was a tense love affair that lasted a mere season, but the three times that London Irish and Union Sportive des Arlequins Perpignanais clashed in the 2007/08 campaign were naturally fraught with merciless aggression and enchanting drama.
Having never competitively met before nor since, the two Clubs’ meetings are immortalised and frozen in time, and with a split in results in the pool stages of the tournament, the quarter-final could not have been more finely poised.
Irish opened their account with maximum points whilst hosting Benetton Treviso, winning 42-9, and on their travels in Wales with a 17-45 triumph at Rodney Parade, but Perpignan relinquished a crucial try bonus in a tight opener against Dragons despite a latter five-pointer against the Italians.
It was Brian Smith’s side that handed Perpignan their only defeat in the six-game billing of the pool stages, with the compliment returned by the Catalonian Club in Round 4.
Peter Hewat’s accurate 45-metre final kick of the game denied the visitors a losing bonus and with that, Irish additionally retained the best points record in the tournament at the time with 14 from an available 15 points on offer in the first congregating of the sides.
Hewat describes arriving at London Irish and being welcomed on to the big stage, and making his first campaign in green a memorable one.
“It was just an unbelievable experience, you hear a lot about the Heineken Cup but it’s not until you get there when you realise the nature and the size of the competition- to witness it and play first in it first hand was just incredible.
“Losing away to Perpignan was an eye-opener for me and probably the first time I had played in snow!
“The parochial crowd out there were really strong that day.”
With three players from the French side sin-binned in Reading, the “tasty” reverse predicted by Smith in the “lion’s den” that is the Stade Aimé Giral was enacted as Perpignan stretched their home winning streak to 11 consecutive games in a row.
Kieran Roche was hospitalised following a fracas with Perry Freshwater and Delon Armitage was sent to the bin for a high tackle on Adrien Planté, but Cédric Rosalen stood out with 11 points to deputise for Percy Montgomery, who was just returning from injury.
With two games remaining and a point separating the teams, it was game on in pursuit of topping Pool 1 and in turn, a home quarter-final.
Both sides did not blink in either remaining game but another failed attempt to pick up a try bonus for USAP against Dragons compounded their shot at a home knockout tie, proving vital in the seedings.
With neither Dragons nor Treviso coming close to the leaders of the pack, the final Pool 1 standings came down only to two try bonus points to separate the budding outfits, Irish sitting atop the group come Saturday 19th January 2008.
Irish were tied with Saracens and Gloucester for overall points in pool stages (24), and were seeded second only on tries scored (25), which was at the time the second-highest number of tries in Heineken Cup history in the pool stages.
The best two runners-up in the six pools seeded seventh (Perpignan) and eighth to progress to the quarter-finals alongside the winners- Irish and Perpignan were to meet again.
''We are ready to match muscle with muscle, if things get a bit tasty people will protect themselves- that is natural,'' said London Irish Director of Rugby Brian Smith ahead of the quarter-final.
''We have 22 blokes who are very courageous, know how to look after themselves and stick together.
“That has always been the London Irish way.”
The Exiles benefited from home advantage in their first ever knockout stage berth in the Heineken Cup, earned through a 24-point haul in the pool stages only five teams had previously surpassed since the bonus point system was introduced to European competition four seasons prior.
The Madejski Stadium played host to the raucous crowd which included a well-travelled Catalan contingent, cascading down the Pyrenees clad in the colours of the Senyera flag and over the water to Berkshire to support their proud Club that came second only to Stade Toulosain in the 2003 final and Top14 runners-up a year later.
Perpignan had additionally won four in four previous domestic outings whereas the Exiles had taken one in in as many games.
Hewat and the boys in green were well aware of the physical nature of their opponents 14 years ago, but the efforts of the forwards carried them to glory.
“It was definitely talked about, we felt it in the games in the pool stages and probably even more so when we went away, they were really aggressive.
“Our pack had spoken about how much of a battle it would be up against the likes of Henry Tuilagi and Nathan Hines and a cast of well-seasoned front-rowers who were going to target us.
“We knew it was coming, but our pack that day were outstanding; Faan Rautenbach was hitting rucks like a man possessed that day, Kendo and Bobby Casey ruled the lineout, Steffon Armitage had a field day and Declan Danaher was his industrial self.
“The boys were so ready to go.”
With Alain Rolland’s whistle the game was underway in Reading and it was Irish who made the more positive of starts between the sides with daring play, but Perpignan registered the first points through World Cup winner with South Africa, Percy Montgomery.
Sailosi Tagicakibau threatened after receiving a Peter Hewat mispass on his native left wing but Topsy Ojo’s scrambling high tackle on Ovidiu Tonița after one too many lengthy passes granted the established South African full-back nudged his side into the lead.
The scoreline seemingly told a share of the story of the game at this stage, with Irish promising in their advancing territory yet their own worst enemy with consecutive penalties conceded at the ruck- two of seven in the half compared to Perpignan’s five.
Perpignan were bold yet shared a similar frustration with ball in hand, coming close in the phases following a rolling maul from a lineout and then again after overturning possession at an Irish put-in.
The visitors looked dangerous when fronting up with their pack and the Exiles were thrusted onto the backfoot, Tuilagi knocking-on five metres out and Tagicakibau claimed a vital interception whilst defending an overlap to stop Perpignan progressing further 20 minutes in.
Irish responded through the boot of their own goal-kicking 15 Peter Hewat, who signed on ahead of the season; knocking over two kicks in three minutes after Nick Kennedy stole a lineout and Tuilagi was cautioned at the ruck then Chris Cusiter didn’t release following a lengthy Mike Catt clearance.
The end of another three-minute period highlighted the discipline of Smith’s men being found wanting, Montgomery being presented a kick after an Tonița-forced turnover to slot another place kick, this time from 30 metres afar from the uprights.
A fast-paced tie went up a notch when Irish efficiently built through the opposing lines off the back of a stolen lineout from the immense Kennedy, feeding partner Bob Casey at the base of the move.
Seilala Mapusua bruised his way through the rearguard and in the following phase, the ever-instrumental Mike Catt chipped through a delightful ball in the direction of the only remaining squad member of the 2002 Powergen Cup win, Declan Danaher, who touched down despite Christophe Manas’ contest.
Hewat’s missed conversion was the only blemish on his afternoon and it was to be the last meaningful impact from the veteran Catt, who came off worst in a joint tackle courtesy of Marius Tincu and Nicolas Laharrague in a blow to the knee.
He made way for the returning youngster Shane Geraghty after a six-week stint on the sidelines with knee ligament damage that kept him out of the 2008 Six Nations.
Following on from more sublime set-piece work, a further well-positioned scrum for Irish bucked the trend and Laharrague could then clear.
Half-back partner Paul Hodgson proved it was far from one way traffic for the home side, buoyed not only in attack but also without the ball by the home crowd as the England international prevented Adrien Planté from dotting down for a corner-flag finish.
With Perpignan playing with an advantage for offside, they read the same playbook with a cross-field kick from Laharrague but the TMO ruled out Planté’s effort and play was brought back for a previous offence.
Hodgson’s intervention effectively ensured Irish were ahead at the end of the opening period as Montgomery acquiesced to took what were to be his last three points, the closest Perpignan came to a retort.
Irish could have had even more before the conclusion of the first 40 having reclaimed the kick-off whilst Montgomery could not reclaim an elevated Hewat kick from hand, Seilala Mapusua booting through the loose ball only to be penalised for disallowing the defender to come back to his feet.
A combination of Hewat and Topsy Ojo kicks to the corner pushed back and kept the pressure on a French side coming out of the paddock with intent in the second half at a Madejski now doused in April showers.
A third quarter of a feisty meeting proved to be the decisive one, the Exiles’ prolific Aussie bagging the two of the three remaining penalty kicks before another 61st minute conversion played a massive hand in wrapping up Irish’s qualification to the promised land.
Not releasing, encroaching offside and an illegal scrum were the trio of nails that were nailed into the French side’s coffin.
“It was just one of those special days where everything clicked, a lot of that 80 minutes I felt like I was in slow motion,” Hewat outlines.
“I was in the zone and everything around me went calmly, there was no panic or anxiety in the dressing room.
“There was a quiet, calm and confident feeling within the sheds that day and I suppose that just flows through everyone when they are doing their role.”
A crucial injection of discipline from the home side in the second half saw their penalties conceded tally remain stagnant whilst Perpignan’s increased, Hewat dismantling them kick by kick to extend the swing to 11.
Scotland internationals Chris Cusiter and Nathan Hines were hooked in the second-half and the desire from Jacques Brunel’s team bordered on near anguish, matched only by the confidence of their hosts with Mapusua tackling David Marty and the ball going into touch before another penalty was awarded in Irish’s favour from the next lineout.
Bob Casey pinched an encouraging lineout for Irish from Perpignan, spawning from another impressive touch finder from Hewat but Irish could do little with the ball and conceded some ground.
Irish’s instrumental tight five were anchored by their Anglo-Irish engine room pairing of Nick Kennedy and Casey, winning 15 of their 16 set-piece throw-ins on the day with six steals to boot with Smith crediting the forwards for “providing a wonderful platform” in the match.
Hewat utilisises the same terminology for the work put in by the eight men in front of him on the day in order to grasp the result.
“Like many of those games- the bigger they are, the less opportunities you get.
“There was only one try and it was otherwise very tight with the penalties, so the forward pack have to lay the platform.
“Looking across our forwards we didn’t really have any blockbuster names but I felt we had a real pack mentality, and could match up with anybody.”
"I don't think there's a better line-out forward in England than Nick [Kennedy] at the moment,” Toby Booth stated post-game.
“As well as his technical ability, today proved he has a big game temperament."
Marty posed questions of Irish and exploited space where possible, the most troublesome of occasions soon equalised by another returning replacement Delon Armitage who countered the pacy break and put the former into touch.
Immense rebuttal from Irish from contact to ball clearance ever so surely shut to window on a Perpignan revival, man of the match Hewat showing his class for the final time to coolly usher the ball back into the opposing half in a linekicking masterclass to leave Planté at sea.
The Catalonians started to become careless with limited time remaining and the needle that plagued previous encounters had reared its head once more, Viliami Vaki given his marching orders for violent conduct on Steffon Armitage after being put into touch in injury time.
Rolland’s piercing final whistle couldn’t come soon enough and was steadfastly drowned out by the roar of the 16,000-strong home faithful, the elation released into the ether of the Berkshire air as Irish’s place in a European semi-final was theirs.
The pre-match talk of a meeting of rugby mindsets, between Irish’s attacking escapades and Perpignan’s brutish game up front in part came true, but Irish’s dexterity in both camps saw them come out on top.
Pre-match, Smith described a potential “emptiness” that could cloud the Club should qualification be squandered- they needn’t worry as spirits were high in west London.
Hewat continues: “It’s hard to explain who aren’t on the inside, until you get over and see the passion of most teams in England.
“More importantly, it’s the Irish supporters and their unique dedication and passion, it was about performing on the big stage to give them something to cheer about.
“You know how much it meant to them, it put London Irish on the map too, in Europe at least which is something I am really proud about.”
A short trip down the road to take on Europe’s elite at HQ three weeks later was without doubt the biggest day in the Club’s history outside of Powergen Cup glory in 2002 and Challenge Cup final in 2006, and Irish and their fans knew they faced a monumental task irrespective of their semi-final opponents.
“It was a very, very special day in my career, top five pushing into top three, one that will be forever etched in my mind,” the Australian fondly reminisced.
“It was just how special it was to the people around London Irish and community as well.
“We were probably underdogs at the start of the year going into that pool, and to get a home quarter-final and deliver a performance as a team was magnificent.”
The versatile back finished fourth in points scored in the tournament (75) with four tries in six appearances (joint fourth).
On the day, that Irish team instantly ranked amongst the most revered in the 110-year history that preceded the fixture, defeating the soon-to-be 2009 Top14 victors in Perpignan- “a day the team came of age,” according to skipper Bob Casey after the game.
"A lot of people make too much of an issue about this not being an Irish club anymore.
"There may not be as many Irish players as there once was, but the spirit of the Irish is still there."
The spirit could not be quashed, and optimism remained at fever-pitch with the Reading side reaching uncharted territory this deep, in this competition.
Another Gallic opponent in Toulouse, the most successful of all the competing Clubs on the European stage at the time and have still remained so, ultimately undone Irish efforts at the national stadium by a scoreline of 15-21.
“We knew the game that Toulouse played back then and what they are getting back to now, the offload game and had some special outside backs,” Hewat states.
“We were in that game for long periods but we weren’t as accurate as we were in the previous round.
“We were also a bit mentally fatigued from that Perpignan game, I remember playing up in Newcastle a week after and were very, very flat.
“It was a big day for us to get that quarter and people probably didn’t expect us to get there, never mind put in the performance we did against Perpignan.
“It was disappointing we couldn’t transfer the energy we had into that day, but myself and the boys would still be very proud that we could do that for the fans that year.”
The Exiles missed out on qualifying for a third successive campaign in the Heineken Cup the same year after finishing 7th in the Premiership, nevertheless quenching the taste for European knockout rugby by reaching a successive year in the knockouts for the first time, this time in the Challenge Cup.
The Club have since entered the quarter-finals on four separate occasions since, two back-to-back Challenge Cup berths in 2014/15 and 2015/16, and recent as 2020/21 and 2021/22 as a barometer of how far the west Londoners have come since that initial famous outing at the Madejski.
Score sequence (London Irish first): 0-3, 3-3, 6-3, 6-6, 11-6, 11-9, 14-9, 17-9, 20-9.
London Irish: Tries: Declan Danaher (31); Penalties: Peter Hewat (21) (24) (53) (56) (62).
Union Sportive des Arlequins Perpignanais: Penalties: Percy Montgomery (5) (27) (37).
15 Peter Hewat, 14 Topsy Ojo, 13 Gonzalo Tiesi, 12 Seilala Mapusua, 11 Sailosi Tagicakibau, 10 Mike Catt, 9 Paul Hodgson; 1 Clarke Dermody, 2 David Paice, 3 Faan Rautenbach, 4 Nick Kennedy, 5 Bob Casey (c), 6 Declan Danaher, 7 Steffon Armitage, 8 Phil Murphy.
16 Tonga Lea'aetoa, 17 Danie Coetzee, 18 James Hudson, 19 Richard Thorpe, 20 Delon Armitage, 21 Peter Richards, 22 Shane Geraghty.
Union Sportive des Arlequins Perpignanais
15 Percy Montgomery, 14 Christophe Manas, 13 David Marty, 12 Jean-Philippe Grandclaude, 11 Adrien Planté, 10 Nicolas Laharrague, 9 Chris Cusiter; 1 Sebastien Chobet, 2 Marius Tincu, 3 Nicolas Mas, 4 Rimas Álvarez Kairelis (c), 5 Nathan Hines, 6 Viliami Vaki, 7 Ovidiu Tonița, 8 Henry Tuilagi.
16 Guilhem Guirado, 17 Perry Freshwater, 18 Sebastian Bozzi, 19 Christophe Porcu, 20 Nicolas Durand, 21 Gavin Hume, 22 Damien Chouly.
Referee: Mr Alain Rolland (Ireland).