London Irish’s European adventure of 2022/23 came to an end with a 21-21 tie against Montpellier Hérault in the final pool stage round of the Heineken Champions Cup.
The Exiles looked to upset the odds against the reigning Top 14 champions in the first 50 minutes, with three converted tries from Adam Coleman as well as Argentinian duo Juan Martín González and Agustín Creevy.
A bonus point win would have etched Irish’s name into the Round of 16 in the EPCR Challenge Cup, but a fightback in the last 20 minutes from Montpellier began with a Thomas Darmon try.
Despite Irish avoiding defeat for the first time in this year’s competition, further efforts from Vincent Giudicelli and Cobus Reinach would seal the Exiles fate of not reaching the knockouts on the continent for the first time in three seasons.
A scrappy start in the encounter between the sides, with spills and loose lineouts, soon subsided with strong attacking incentive from Irish with Ollie Hassell-Collins involved heavily.
A breakdown penalty conceded by Montpellier saw the Exiles go to the corner and despite an initial shunt falling short at the whitewash, the returning Adam Coleman’s pick and go saw his side over for the game’s first score as Paddy Jackson converted.
Consecutive strong showings at the scrum for Irish laid a platform for further offensive opportunities, but a kick going out on the full prevented any further territory gain.
Montpellier would work through the phases but after fielding a grubber, Michael Dykes and Chandler Cunningham-South would spearhead a penetrative sequence made at Hazelwood, but it would conclude in an untimely spill of the ball.
Effort out of possession from Declan Kidney’s men would force a handling error onto Les Cistes, Irish making inroads off the back of another excellent set-piece via Cunningham-South down the right edge.
Spillages initially from the visitors and then the hosts would grant another green scrum but this time an avenue to the whitewash could not be found, Montpellier formulating an exit from a swift lineout throw.
Irish not supporting their body weight at the breakdown saw the Hérault side go to the corner in an attempt to replicate Irish’s form at the other end, but an uncoordinated lineout passage saw Montpellier knock-on once more.
Slick handling from the hosts, although initially met with big hits from Coleman, Josh Basham and Dykes, would see them closest to their first try yet and play was brought back for an offside advantage.
Irish would be pinged once more from an offside at the scrum, Gabriel Ngandebe knocking-on but with a tap penalty, Philippe Saint-André’s men would fall foul to poor handling close to a try again via Paul Willemse.
In another showcase of defensive stoutness, Basham would force a turnover and Irish would transition excellently into attacking mode whilst earning two breakdown infringement penalties from poor Montpellier discipline.
Going off a lineout drive, Rory Jennings would break the gain line and with a recycle of the ball Joe Powell would opt to work down the blindside and locate Juan Martín González to touch down, capping off a week to remember for the Puma.
It was then time for some Wallaby influence at the breakdown, Montpellier going for touch after an incomplete collection of the restart but both Rob Simmons and Powell would play their part in sacking the maul to see out a 14-0 first-half win.
Irish would take the first put-in of the second period with Danilo Fischetti’s influence, Josh Basham then earning a jackal turnover in midfield to gain back possession for the travelling side.
Jackson would situate the Exiles deep into opposing territory after his pack won another scrum penalty, referee Mike Adamson eyeing a change in bind from Nicolaas Janse van Rensburg in the maul so Irish would execute the same option from the throw-in.
A sensational rolling maul could not be stopped and Agustín Creevy’s final action before being replaced by Mike Willemse saw Irish go three tries to the good, Jackson adding the extras for a 21-point cushion.
Lucio Cinti’s defensive read to intercept the ball prevented a certain score for the hosts, yet another spill from Montpellier followed but after bagging a first-round brace, Thomas Darmon would strike against Irish again for a converted try on the afternoon.
Brilliant tracking from Hassell-Collins saw him touch down in his own goal area for a five-metre scrum after a searing break from Montpellier, González’s counter-rucking winning back the ball after a Zach Mercer peel off the scrum.
The blindside flanker would steal the ball back in contact, and with a ball out the back to compatriot Cinti, Irish would clear but Montpellier would look for a second as the game entered the fourth and final quarter.
Cinti would be called upon once more and would hold Vincent Rattez up in the goal area, but Irish would have to fight a man down after Paddy Jackson’s yellow carding for a breakdown infringement before Vincent Giudicelli earned a converted score.
The pressure was well and truly on the travelling side, another strip from Cinti alleviating pressure for a matter of moments before Irish were pulled back over their own whitewash for another five-metre scrum.
Replacement Cobus Reinach would level proceedings with the aid of half-back partner Louis Carbonel, the South African utilising a tap and go for their third try.
Cinti’s collection of the short kick-off, later complemented with a Montpellier knock-on, gave Irish a scrum just advanced of the ten-metre line as Jackson returned to the field to fight for the win.
Despite Irish conceding possession, Montpellier would play on with the clock in the red in an admirable display of determination but an Ngandebe knock-on would end the game and Irish’s chances of progression to the Challenge Cup.
Score sequence (London Irish second): 0-5, 0-7, 0-12, 0-14, 0-19, 0-21, 5-21, 7-21, 12-21, 14-21, 19-21, 21-21.
Montpellier Hérault: Tries: Darmon (57), Giudicelli (66) Reinach (74); Conversions: Carbonel (58) (67) (75).
London Irish: Tries: Coleman (5), González (36), Creevy (47); Conversions: Jackson (7) (37) (48); Yellow Cards: Jackson (68).
15 Anthony Bouthier, 14 Gabriel Ngandebe, 13 Thomas Darmon, 12 Geoffrey Doumayrou (Lucas 28), 11 Vincent Rattez, 10 Louis Carbonel, 9 Léo Coly (Reinach 50); 1 Simon-Pierre Chauvac (Forletta 52), 2 Brandon Paenga-Amosa (Giudicelli 50), 3 Mohamed Haouas (Lamositele 52), 4 Bastien Chalureau (Stooke 50), 5 Paul Willemse, 6 Nicolaas Janse van Rensburg (Doumenc 63), 7 Yacouba Camara, 8 Zach Mercer.
16 Vincent Giudicelli, 17 Enzo Forletta, 18 Titi Lamositele, 19 Clément Doumenc, 20 Cobus Reinach, 21 Pierre Lucas, 22 Julien Tisseron, 23 Elliott Stooke.
15 Lucio Cinti, 14 Michael Dykes (Stokes 55), 13 Luca Morisi (Poolman 70), 12 Rory Jennings, 11 Ollie Hassell-Collins, 10 Paddy Jackson, 9 Joe Powell (Englefield 73); 1 Danilo Fischetti (Gigena 69), 2 Agustín Creevy (Willemse 50), 3 Lovejoy Chawatama (Hoskins 27), 4 Rob Simmons (c), 5 Adam Coleman (Munga 70), 6 Josh Basham, 7 Juan Martín González, 8 Chandler Cunningham-South (Donnell 69).
16 Mike Willemse, 17 Facundo Gigena, 18 Oliver Hoskins, 19 Chunya Munga, 20 Ben Donnell, 21 Caolan Englefield, 22 Eddie Poolman, 23 James Stokes.
Referee: Mr Mike Adamson