London Irish had never gone so far in this competition but last night they were bemoaning the fact that they had not gone a lot further. They matched Toulouse try for try but in the end came up short. It was a magnificent effort by the Guinness Premiership side, but they felt they had missed a trick.
Topsy Ojo, who scored a sensational try and might have added another, was made man of the match, but rarely has such an award-winner been so downhearted. "Just look at the opportunities we had," the wing said. "The game was there to be won. We took them all the way but our finishing was not as clinical as it should have been. We had so many line breaks."
After seeing an early lead overhauled, the Irish came back to 15-15, only to fall behind again to two penalties. That turned out to be the difference after Ojo and Shane Geraghty made a couple of stunning breaks that came to nothing. If Ojo soundeddisappointed, his captain, Bob Casey, was even worse.
"I'm absolutely devastated," he said. "I was very confident of winning. It was an unbelievably hot day and the only team playing in the last 15 minutes was us. Toulouse were out on their feet. There were a couple of decisions by the referee that I couldn't fathom. This club has a great future and we'll come back stronger. We belong in the Heineken Cup."
Whether they will qualify for next season's blue riband is open to doubt. Had they reached the final – Toulouse meet the winners of today's semi-final between Saracens and Munster in Cardiff on 24 May – they would have been safe.
Yesterday the Irish elected to play Toulouse at their own game, or something that resembled it, and Brian Smith, their director of rugby, had made no secret of his approach. "We will embrace their spirit," Smith said, and his team were as good as his word. Things, though, might have been different had Mike Catt been fit. For one thing he would have kicked a lot more, something Geraghty tends to ignore. With such a strong line-out, kicking to touch is something he will have to learn.
Ojo and the Irish could have got off to a flier in the second minute when they put together a neat attack and Peter Hewat, finding himself close to the touchline, chipped infield. As the ball rolled over the line it was touch and go between Ojo and Yves Donguy. The French wing won the race by the narrowest of margins.
Toulouse had the lead by the 10th minute, Jean-Baptiste Elissalde kicking a penalty, but that was cancelled out by Hewat's boot. Ojo then produced a brilliant individual effort. Finding a bit of space on the left wing, thanks to the Irish's determination to keep the ball alive, he accelerated past Elissalde, and when he cut inside he easilyeluded the so-called tackle of Cédric Heymans. To think they used to call full-backs the last line of defence.
Hewat's conversion gave Irish a 10-3 lead which looked even healthier a few minutes later when Declan Danaher was guilty of a high tackle but Elissalde made a hash of the penalty. Toulouse, though, then stepped up several gears.
After Fabien Pelous wasted a glorious opportunity by delivering an awful pass to bypass a three-man overlap (what was the captain, a lock, doing in the centre?), they scored twice in four minutes before half-time.
The forwards gained an attacking platform and the ensuing threequarter move looked more orthodox than exotic, but when Maxime Médard delivered a perfectly timed pass to Manu Ahotaeiloa the centre, inches from the touchline, did well to get in at the corner. The Irish were pondering how they had conceded that try when they conceded another, this one a very different model: line-out, rolling maul, drive. At the bottom was the hooker, William Servat. The three-times champions of Europe were 15-10 up and looking very good. Five minutes after the break, though, Sailosi Tagicakibau came up with a try that was almost as good as Ojo's. Once again Heymans was beaten and so was Médard as the wing raced 35 yards to the line.
Toulouse, more experienced, more patient, hit the front again, Elissalde kicking two penalties. Ojo's second coming on the hour, when he left Yannick Jauzion for dead, could have been the match-winner. His run was interruptedby a desperate ankle tap from Médard. So near, and yet so far. "I'm very proud of the team but we have a big empty feeling in our stomachs," Smith said.
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, B Casey (capt), D Danaher, P Murphy (J M Leguizamon, 56), S Armitage.
Toulouse: C Heymans; M Médard, M Ahotaeiloa, Y Jauzion, Y Donguy; J-B Elissalde, B Kelleher; D Human, W Servat, S Perugini (O Hasan, 68), F Pelous (capt; R Millochlusky, 68), P Albacete, J Bouilhou (G Lamboley, 74), S Sowerby, Y Nyanga (T Dusautoir, 60).
Referee: A Lewis (Ireland).Reuse content