London Irish have a mountain to climb if they are to qualify for the Heineken Cup quarter-finals, after Racing Métro bounced back from their defeat by the Exiles in Paris last week by winning in Reading.
Toby Booth's side are five points behind the joint leaders of Pool Two, the Cardiff Blues and Edinburgh, with a trip to the latter and a home match against the former to come. They have already lost away to the Blues and at home to Edinburgh.
Booth said: "I never accept [failure] until it is not possible [to qualify] but if it was hard enough before, then it is hard enough now. We didn't take our chances and we were unable to control the tempo of the game. How much slow ball did we have? You have to give Racing creditfor controlling our environment.
"You have to be clinical and we weren't clinical. It is all about getting to the red zone and getting something from it. You have to control the scoreboard. They got an intercept try when we were forcing the issue when we didn't have to."
Booth, perhaps surprisingly, is still hopeful of reaching the last eight. He said: "We have always said how evenly positioned the group is."
Racing's former Exeter centre, Josh Matavesi, was proud of his team, who kept their own slim hopes alive.
"Last week, they came at us and played us off the park and we had no answer," he said. "This week we took them on. The boys showed courage."
Booth made two changes in the backs from last week's team, with Tom Homer coming off the bench to the wing and Topsy Ojo going in the other direction. Adrian Jarvis came in at fly-half for Dan Bowden, who was injured. Up front, Ofisa Treviranus switched from flanker to No 8, with Jamie Gibson on the openside. The French club made eight changes to their starting XV.
After the former England scrum-half Paul Hodgson had led Irish out to mark his 200th appearance – which he actually made last week – the Exiles carried on where they left off. Racing's first clearance kick, on their own line, was half-charged down; the French club then gave away a penalty, 55 metres from their line and Homer stepped up to hammer the ball over the posts from inside his own half.
The visiting team were evidently in no mood to lie down. The first half was a kicking contest as Homer landed three more penalties and Jonathan Wisniewski punished Irish errors. Irish gave away six points from penalties awarded at the ruck and when Racing's powerful pack, led by the former Sale No 8 Sébastien Chabal, got within range, Wisniewski dropped two goals to secure a 15-12 half-time lead.
Irish needed tries for a bonus point, but Racing seized the initiative in the second half. Wisniewski dropped his third goal after 50 minutes before the first try of the match came when Sereli Bobo kicked on a dropped ball from an Irish player and sped under the posts to make his fly-half's conversion easy.
At that point, Irish were bottom of the pool. Although they fought back, the dominant Racing pack kept them at bay in the set piece. Wisniewski was sent to the sin-bin for 10 minutes late on, for a deliberate knock-on, and the Exiles finally scored right on the whistle. David Paice was put through a gap five metres from the line and Homer kicked the conversion to reduce the deficit to six points. That gave Irish a losing bonus point and kept the faintest of faint hopes alive.
London Irish D Armitage; T Homer, J Ansbro, J Spratt (S Hape, 62), A Thompstone (T Ojo, 69); A Jarvis, D Allinson (P Hodgson, 73); C Dermody (capt; M Lahiff, 62), D Paice, P Ion (F Rautenbach, 62), B Evans (B Casey, 68), M Garvey, D Danaher, O Treviranus (R Thorpe, 47), J Gibson.
Racing Métro 92 G Germain; J Saubade, V Vakatawa, J Matavesi, S Bobo; J Wisniewski, N Durand (S Descons, 63); J Brugnaut (J Coetzee, 71), T Bianchin (B Noirot, 52), JP Orlandi (M Tuugahala, 52), S Dellape (J Qovu Nailiko, 52), F van der Merwe (K Ghezal, 48), R Vaquin, S Chabal (capt), A Galindo (B le Roux, 40).
Referee J Lacey (Ireland).
Pens: Homer 4
Racing Métro 92
Pens: Wisniewski 3
DGs: Wisniewski 3