11 June 2022
London Irish 29-13 Ulster Rugby – 9th December 2006 – Heineken Cup Pool 5 Round 3
Tries: Juan Manuel Leguizamón, Mike Catt, Shane Geraghty, Sailosi Tagicakibau
Conversions: Shane Geraghty (3)
Penalties: Barry Everitt
Tries: Paul Steinmetz
Conversions: David Humphreys
Penalties: David Humphreys (2)
Unfortunately, evenings such as these have not come around too often.
A meeting of province and Club, both with storied pasts and intertwining cultures, are occasions to be savoured by both fanbases- but it was the Londoners who chronicled themselves into history on that night in 2006.
Brian Smith’s London Irish produced a famed outing at the Madejski Stadium against Ulster Rugby, playing an Irish province for the first time in a competitive setting since the turn of the professional era.
Following on from a first top four finish in the first tier and a Powergen Cup, 2002/03 was the first Heineken Cup journey for the Exiles in which they just came up short in the pool stages after beating all of Edinburgh Rugby, Newport Gwent Dragons and 2006/07 Pool 5 opponents, Stade Toulousain.
Four years later, in what was Irish’s second ever campaign in the premier European knockout competition, the Exiles made far from the perfect start from their succeeding Heineken Cup escapade.
A narrow 25-32 loss to Llanelli Scarlets at home meant the Welsh region took back five points over the border in Round 1, new Head Coach Phil Davies’ side resisting Irish’s late 19-point fightback as the Exiles reclaimed a losing bonus.
Despite Delon Armitage opening the scoring a week later in southern France, momentum soon switched permanently in favour of Toulouse in Round 2 as the Top14 runners-up secured a try bonus late on to conclude 37-17.
Now, Irish had to prove their foregoing top four and Challenge Cup finalist credentials and keep their hopes of progression alive when welcoming the might of Ulster.
A London Irish connection extends to the northernmost province’s success in the Celtic League the previous year; Mark McCall’s side lifted their only domestic league since the game went professional when David Humphreys’ late drop goal against Ospreys secured the title, with former Exile Kieran Campbell in their ranks whilst Kieron Dawson joined ahead of the season.
The Ulstermen, also one-time European champions against Colomiers in 1999, arrived at the Madejski clad in international honours, 14 capped squad members to be precise, and five points under their belt.
The visitors attained a more than convincing opening day triumph over Toulouse, finishing 30-3, and took a losing bonus point from Parc y Scarlets in a 21-15 defeat in Wales.
A first trip to face Brian Smith’s men with points at stake was no affordable achievement for the Irish outfit, particularly with the authoritative Exile Nation in full voice.
14,675 fans from both moieties of the Irish Sea roared the sides onto the field, with day swiftly following into dusk as the opening proceedings progressed in the biting December conditions.
Humphreys got the game underway against his former employers and was the first to get his name on the scoresheet 13 minutes in, nudging a place kick through the sticks following on from a sloppy, error-strewn opening from both sides that Irish nonetheless controlled.
Mike Catt executed a robust challenge on young Andrew Trimble to open what was a stellar 74 minutes on the Reading field for the centre, veteran Irishman Justin Bishop also causing problems with ball in hand in the loose to take Irish into their second red zone entry, and Delon Armitage was assured under the high ball.
The Exiles were keen to make their ascendency count where it mattered after Sailosi Tagicakibau was put into touch and waited little time to meet the whitewash not once, but twice in succession with Catt the architect in both instances.
Working off the back off a deep lineout collected by Bob Casey, the midfielder found his partner in Seilala Mapusua in the fifth phase with a tight mispass, drawing in Paul Steinmetz before Juan Manuel Leguizamón touched down after fielding a cool offload from the Samoan with slick handling.
Catt was next in line to score, and what a score it was; Shane Geraghty’s youth dovetailing with the former’s experience seamlessly as the Academy star, first receiver off a lineout move, chipped through to the reigning Premiership Player of the Year who worked off a great decoy from Mapusua and grubbered to collect a kind bounce and enter the goal area.
20-year-old Geraghty converted both efforts, sending another kick from hand through to Sailosi Tagicakibau only for the ball to escape the grasps of the electric winger and the ball went dead.
Irish were phlegmatic in their play, but the traveling side too grew in confidence along with their increase ball possession as the half drew to a close, turning the ball over at the set piece and then strong carrying from Roger Wilson and Paddy Wallace advanced them up the pitch.
After Irish were penalised for hands at the breakdown, from range Humphreys knocked over another penalty and were handed a further advantage with referee Joel Jutge’s double booking of the hosts, firstly for Delon Armitage and then for Bishop.
Armitage was sent to the bin for a dangerous high tackle on fellow 15 Bryn Cunningham and Bishop tripped Isaac Boss from the floor of a breakdown, only for McCall’s boys to capitalise further through a converted try from All Black Steinmetz.
Justin Harrison collected a short lineout having been influential in Ulster’s growth and his side looked to spread the ball out left, eventually locating the centre to cross over and arrears were cut to just a single point at the half.
The Exiles responded to adversity and weathered the storm in the absence of two key players, Mapusua’s try-saving tackle on the troublesome Trimble and Humphreys’ penalty miss thwarted an Ulster resurgence and kept the Reading side ahead on the evening.
Irish were rewarded for such perseverance and were in once more, owing more points to their deadly 10/12 axis of Geraghty and Catt as the elder statesman headed a pervasive break for his side from one end of the field to the next.
Leguizamón received and bore down on the try line and was brought down by a brilliant intervention, with the skipper moving the recycled ball over the goal line but was held up.
Irish’s third consecutive try originating from a set-piece saw Geraghty’s feint and incisive cut into the heart of the Ulster defence six phases off the scrum, enabling an opening under the posts and a consequent easy conversion with the taste of Guinness and victory now on the lips of the Exile Nation.
The out-half’s significant cameo would have sparked intrigue for both sets of supporters, with Geraghty yet to declare his allegiance to either nation at the time.
A seasoned Irish points scorer Barry Everitt entered the fray in replacement of the 11-point fly-half and, despite missing a drop goal attempt, soon added three to his own tally from the tee.
Steffon Armitage got himself over the ball in an attempt to pilfer back possession, Ulster didn’t release, and Everitt’s strike took the result beyond any reasonable doubt with little time remaining.
Ulster still strived to heave themselves to within seven of their opponents by keeping the ball alive with 80 minutes up, but once again, the younger Armitage sibling mirrored the aggressive defensive mindset utilised by the Irish sides of the 2000s and took the ball, working further into the Ulstermen’s half.
Storming winger Sailosi Tagicakibau was the man to take Irish to a try bonus five minutes into added time, shadowing the returning Armitage down the left flank after a passing sequence involving Phil Murphy, Bishop and Leguizamón (using great hands once more) for Tagicakibau to finally receive and cross over the line.
The win, Irish’s first in Europe that term, took the Exiles above Toulouse on points difference after Round 3 in what became the apex of a second hapless venture on the continent.
Fans from Tyrone, Berkshire, Belfast and Kilburn alike shared the craic in a festival of rugby seldom seen since a move out west to Reading at the dawn of the millennium.
Besides the rekindling of ancestral kinship in the stands also were fond memories made on the pitch, with Director of Rugby Brian Smith ranking the performance in the “top three of the season” and in “the top five” of his coaching tenure.
On the Man of the Match, Smith waxed lyrical of the 35-year-old Mike Catt.
"Catt can still do a job for England - the reason he's still one of the best centres in the game is his unbelievable enthusiasm.
"At times today he was charging like the cavalry through ugly players like Neil Best who wanted to knock his block off.
"He comes to training and expects the best of himself and everyone else and doesn't take any shortcuts, his nostrils flare when he walks onto the pitch - he's an inspiration."
Four points at the Madejski not only moved London Irish above Toulouse on points difference but kept Irish mathematically in the quarter-final equation, yet it was to be the pinnacle of a rather unsuccessful campaign in the Heineken Cup.
In a tough pool of then three-time tournament victors Toulouse, the Irish province and eventual semi-finalists Llanelli Scarlets, Smith’s side failed to pick up another result in Pool 5 but two further losing bonuses took them to within a point of third-placed Ulster, whose run without knockout stage rugby in Europe extended another year from their 1999 victory.
Scarlets staved off the French outfit on the day in one of their six wins in the pool stages and moved seven points clear of the chasing pack, with Irish’s sole European win in Europe that term Ulster’s ninth failed bid to beat English opposition in Europe- until the province overcame the Exiles by the same scoreline in the following round.
Nevertheless, at the first time of trying the Exiles conquered one of the four rugby institutions from the motherland, with many an Irish Londoner able to boast bragging rights over family back home.
Sixteen years later, the boys in green enter the European arena for the first time in a decade with the promise of similar idyllic encounters on the horizon for the Club.
Score sequence (London Irish first): 0-3, 5-3, 7-3, 12-3, 14-3, 14-6, 14-11, 14-13, 19-13, 21-13, 24-13, 29-13
London Irish: Tries: Leguizamón (17) Catt (20) Geraghty (62) Tagicakibau (80); Conversions: Geraghty (17) (20) (62); Penalties: Everitt (80).
Ulster Rugby: Tries: Paul Steinmetz; Conversions: David Humphreys; Penalties: David Humphreys (2)
15 Delon Armitage, 14 Justin Bishop, 13 Seilala Mapusua, 12 Mike Catt (c), 11 Sailosi Tagicakibau, 10 Shane Geraghty, 9 Paul Hodgson; 1 Neal Hatley, 2 Robbie Russell, 3 Tonga Lea'aetoa, 4 Nick Kennedy, 5 Bob Casey, 6 Kieran Roche, 7 Steffon Armitage, 8 Juan Manuel Leguizamón.
16 Michael Collins, 17 Danie Coetzee, 18 Faan Rautenbach, 19 James Hudson, 20 Phil Murphy, 21 Gonzalo Tiesi, 22 Barry Everitt.
15 Bryn Cunningham, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Paul Steinmetz, 12 Paddy Wallace, 11 Andrew Trimble, 10 David Humphreys, 9 Isaac Boss; 1 Bryan Young, 2 Rory Best, 3 Simon Best (c), 4 Justin Harrison, 5 Matt McCullough, 6 Neil Best, 7 Kieron Dawson, 8 Roger Wilson.
16 Paul Shields, 17 Declan Fitzpatrick, 18 Tim Barker, 19 Neil McMillan, 20 Kieran Campbell, 21 Kevin Maggs, 22 Mark Bartholomeusz.
Referee: Mr Joel Jutge (France).