London Irish 15 Toulouse 21: Novès' men show IRB old-fashioned virtues

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The Independent Online

It is never easy to second-guess the French when it comes to the union code – leading coaches as different as Philippe Saint-André and Marc Lièvremont have been known to move in deeply mysterious ways, their wonders to perform – but there are clear indications that the Tricolores will support moves to impose a potentially damaging set of experimental laws on the European game when the council members of the International Rugby Board sit down for their powwow in Dublin on Thursday. Should this sadness come to pass, it will be the result of people deliberately refusing to believe their own eyes.

Pierre Villepreux, the full-back who played like a dream before proving that a dreamer could coach the best teams every bit as well as any hard-bitten pragmatist, was among those who, a few hours before kick-off at Twickenham, sought to persuade a sceptical audience that the sport was in need of radical surgery. If he was not quite as doctrinaire as some of his colleagues on the IRB's "laws project group" – two New Zealanders of a certain age, the great openside flanker Graham Mourie and the fine referee Paddy O'Brien contrived to make him look like a backslider – there was not a single daft idea that he did not describe as "interesting".

Villepreux then made the short trip from a conference centre in Teddington to watch his beloved Toulouse in the latest of their regular appearances in the last four of the Heineken Cup, and saw something he must surely have considered worthy of protection and preservation. This semi-final, conducted under regulations the arch-moderniser Rod Macqueen of Australia had earlier dismissed out of hand, saw union resplendent in its coat of many colours: the scrummaging fierce, the line-out combative in the extreme, the breakdown red in tooth and claw, the broken-field running incisive and frequently glorious.

The French club, described as "rugby royalty" by an admiring London Irish hierarchy, were not at their most majestic, but how could they have been, with three of their most gifted attacking runners – Vincent Clerc, Clément Poitrenaud, Florian Fritz – among the long-term injured? They travelled so light in back-line numbers that Guy Novès, their coach, had no option but to name six forwards on the bench and leave the rest in the hands of the almighty.

Maxime Médard was heavily strapped from the start; Jean-Baptiste Eliss-alde and Yves Donguy were virtually mummified by the time the second half began; Yannick Nyanga, a flanker, was pressed into emergency service on the wing.

"We pretty much had to make sure we stayed on the field," said Byron Kelleher, the All Black scrum-half, who hobbled through the last few minutes after breaking down with a leg problem that would, under any other circumstances, have led to an immediate substitution.

"It was a matter of digging really deep," he said, "but the passion was there – the desire, the hunger. The smell of winning was in the air, and that helped us make it through. I'd always struggled to get my head around rugby in the northern hemisphere, but I now understand how tough it is up here. You're tested physically, and you're tested mentally."

In the face of all this, Toulouse managed to play enough of their unique brand of mind-stretching rugby to hold off an inspired London Irish outfit. In the 10 minutes or so before the interval, with Yannick Jauzion touching the heights at inside centre and the hooker William Servat skittling opponents right and left, they scored the tries that laid the foundation for their victory: one through the Tongan centre Manu Ahotaeiloa, set free by Médard's exquisitely timed pass; the other through Servat himself, who was driven over after some athletic line-out work from Nyanga.

If the Irish matched them score for score – Topsy Ojo, the most fluent runner on view, and Sailosi Tagicakibau both crossed the Toulouse line – they were not as hard done by as they felt themselves to be in the immediate aftermath of the contest. Neither wing would have scored had Cédric Heymans, that most fallible of brilliant full-backs, not committed two howlers in the tackle, and had Fabien Pelous made the most of two joyous gallops into the Exiles' 22 the favourites would have been over the hills and far away before the end of the third quarter.

Brian Smith, the London Irish director of rugby, felt that Alan Lewis, the referee, was in awe of Toulouse, and that this respect, bordering on veneration, contributed to a handful of questionable decisions. But the Frenchmen were more secure in their tactical kicking – Shane Geraghty failed to shape the game, although his solo assault four minutes from the end of normal time was something to behold – and when the big questions were asked of their warrior spirit, they came up with the right answers.

Novès, never shy of the grand phrase, spoke afterwards of his players' "solidarity in adversity". Villepreux, one of his forerunners as coach, would have understood him. Quite how, in light of another Heineken Cup semi-final that will live long in the memory, he can even pretend to support the more extreme measures about to be tabled at the IRB is one of the unfathomables of the age. No one wants to stop him dreaming, but it would be reassuring if he woke up and smelled the coffee every now and again.

London Irish: Tries Ojo, Tagicakibau; Conversion Hewat; Penalty Hewat. Toulouse: Tries Ahotaeiloa, Servat; Conversion Elissalde; Penalties Elissalde 3.

London Irish: P Hewat; T Ojo, P Richards, S Mapusua, S Tagicakibau; S Geraghty, P Hodgson; D Murphy (T Lea'aetoa, 40), D Paice, F Rautenbach, N Kennedy, R Casey (capt), D Danaher, S Armitage, P Murphy (J M Leguizamon, 55).

Toulouse: C Heymans; M Médard, M Ahotaeiloa (Nyanga, 74), Y Jauzion, Y Donguy; J-B Elissalde, B Kelleher; D Human, W Servat (A Vernet Basualdo, 80), S Perugini (O Hasan, 71), F Pelous (capt; R Millo-Chluski, 71), P Albacete, J Bouilhou (G Lamboley, 77), Y Nyanga (T Dusautoir, 60), S Sowerby.

Referee: A Lewis (Irel and).