London Irish, playing in their first Heineken Cup quarter-final, produced one of their finest performances to earn a semi-final at Twickenham later this month against the winners of today's tie between Toulouse and the Cardiff Blues. The Irish were magnificent; Perpignan unravelled to such an extent that in the dying seconds they had the flanker Villiami Vaki sent off for punching.
There had been some bad blood between the clubs, who engaged in fiery encounters in the pool stage which culminated in the Irish flanker Kieran Roche suffering a fractured cheekbone and eye socket, courtesy of Perry Freshwater's elbow. Yesterday Freshwater, a former England prop, came on as a second-half replacement and about 15,000 of the 16,048 crowd booed him. Still, the referee, Alain Rolland, had almost no problems until Vaki lost his head. He had been tackled into touch by the outstanding Paul Hodgson; Steffon Armitage was also involved. Vaki's response was to whack Armitage with a number of blows. The referee's response was a red card; from the resultant penalty the Irish booted the ball into touch and the crowd rose to acclaim their heroes.
The Irish won by a try and five penalties to three penalties, the only touchdown arriving in the 31st minute. Mike Catt, who is probably playing his final season (he wants to go into coaching) provided the vision with a perfectly judged kick and Declan Danaher applied the finish.
That was very good news for the Irish. The bad was that within seconds Catt, who had earlier taken a blow to the knee, left the field. The club is fortunate to have a replacement of the quality of Shane Geraghty and Catt was not missed. Percy Montgomery, Perpignan's World Cup winner, was outplayed by Peter Hewat, who not only kicked five penalties but repeatedly pinned the visitors back in the second half. Hodgson outplayed Chris Cusiter, to such an extent that the British Lion was taken off, and the Irish forwards took everything Perpignan could throw at them.
After a promising opening, Irish fell behind to a Montgomery penalty, awarded against Topsy Ojo for a high tackle. It seemed to galvanise the Catalans into a full-scale assault which the Irish defence did remarkably well to repel.
Cusiter was at the heart of some dangerous raids but after several phases Henry Tuilagi knocked on six yards from the line. Perpignan remained within sniffing distance and would surely have prospered from a massive overlap painstakingly created, but for an interception by Sailosi Tagicakibau.
After 22 minutes Tuilagi conceded a penalty which Hewat kicked to level the scores and, against the run of play, the full-back put Irish in front two minutes later with a second successful kick after Cusiter made a hash of a desperate clearance from close to his own line by Catt. Given what had just gone before, it was a great bonus.
Perpignan were level with another Montgomery penalty three minutes later before the Irish struck with a try that was beautifully created and well taken. Catt started it by unleashing the powerful Seilala Mapusua and by beating a couple of defenders, once through guile and then by sheer force, the centre had Perpignan at full stretch. When the ball came back to Catt he had options and he chose the right one. His cross kick to the left-hand corner enabled Danaher, the bigger man, to win a battle in the sky over Christophe Manas and there wasn't another red jersey in the vicinity to prevent the try.
Perpignan had their chances, most notably when Jean-Phillipe Grandclaude produced a rare midfield break. The ball was chipped to the left and it seemed odds on that Adrien Plante would make it to the corner. Instead Hodgson's last-ditch tackle was enough to knock the wing's feet over the touchline just before he touched down.
In the second half Plante was peppered with kicks and he was spectacularly ill-equipped to deal with them. It was left to the immaculate Hewat to add three more penalties to the two he had prepared earlier and kick the Irish to a famous victory.
London Irish: P Hewat; T Ojo, G Tiesi (D Armitage, 57; P Richards, 75), S Mapusua, S Tagicakibau; M Catt (S Geraghty, 32), P Hodgson; C Dermody (T Lea'aetoa, 40), D Paice, F Rautenbach (R Thorpe, 78), N Kennedy, B Casey(capt), D Danaher, P Murphy, S Armitage.
Perpignan: P Montgomery; C Manas, D Marty, J-P Grandclause, A Plante; N Laharrague, C Cusiter (N Durand, 64); S Chobet (P Freshwater, 54), M Tincu (G Guirado, 54), N Mas (S Bozzi, 64), R Alvarez-Kairelis(capt), N Hines (C Porcu, 64), V Vaki, H Tuilagi, O Tonita (D Chouly, 54).
Referee: A Rolland (Ireland).