Not much rugby, plenty of fun and games. After 80-odd minutes of how's-your-father activity at the Madejski Stadium, London Irish denied the fierce and fractious Catalans of Perpignan so much as a losing bonus point to reinforce their position at the top of Pool One. All they have to do now is win at Stade Aim Giral in the return fixture next weekend. A cakewalk? Not quite. The way things went yesterday, it will be more a walk into the valley of death.
The visitors were incandescent with anger at close of play so angry, in fact, that when their hosts lined up at the tunnel for the time-honoured "thanks for the game" formalities, all but three Perpignan players were already in the dressing room, raging against the injustice of life. Or rather, they were raging against Malcolm Changleng, the Scottish referee who had pointed three of their forwards in the direction of the sin bin and cost them a precious away victory by awarding a penalty try just shy of the hour.
Rimas Alvarez Kairelis, the fine Argentine lock, attempted to shake hands with Changleng after being sent to the cooler for ball-killing, then patted him on the back as the official presented Peter Hewat with the late shot at goal that ensured Perpignan would leave the Thames Valley with nothing. He was lucky not to be red-carded for sarcasm. After all, Changleng had penalised the visitors for pretty much everything else, short of wearing loud shirts in a public place.
Perry Freshwater, one of the England props at the World Cup, led the Catalans yesterday, and he was almost as unamused as the French-speaking comrades around him. "I thought we had a rough deal, and we're not very happy," he said, bluntly. "We lost that game because of our lack of discipline, and while some of that was down to people losing their heads, it is also true to say that they were deeply frustrated at some of the decisions awarded against them.
"Did they know what the referee wanted from them? Absolutely not. I don't want us to lose our fire we try to play on the edge, and I think we're difficult to beat when we do. But we find it hard to perform like that in this rugby, which is so different from the rugby we play in France. We'll have to look very carefully at how we approach these games because there's obviously a problem. I've yet to win a Heineken Cup game in England with this team."
Another England international who played his club rugby in France, the flanker Richard Pool-Jones, used to say exactly the same things when he participated in this competition with Stade Franais. On one infamous occasion, after the Parisians had been robbed blind by the officials in a tight game at Leicester, Pool-Jones was heard to comment: "Every time we play in England, I warn my colleagues that they will end the game confused and bitter." Freshwater did not go quite that far in speech, but if looks could have killed...
But for their fury at Changleng's performance, the Perpignan players would have aimed their anger at Peter Richards, the London Irish scrum-half and a World Cup colleague of Freshwater's. Richards was at his most irritatingly effective yesterday: constantly in the ear of the officials, à la Matt Dawson, his contribution might have been specifically designed to get up the noses of his opponents. At one point early in the game, he appeared to be tripped by Nicolas Durand. The officials missed the incident, but Richards made such a ridiculous fuss about it, he would not have looked out of place playing football for Reading at the same venue the previous evening.
It should also be said that he played a legitimate blinder into the bargain. One second-half mark under pressure from Durand was nothing short of inspirational, and his running game from ruck and maul caused Perpignan no end of grief. Yet the Catalans could, perhaps should, have won despite falling behind to Bob Casey's drive-over try from a line-out at the start of the second quarter and losing two heavyweight back-rowers from the South Seas, the Samoan No 8 Henry Tuilagi, whose shattered rib posed a worrying threat to his lung, and the Tongan flanker Viliami Vaka, to injury inside 25 minutes.
Cedric Rosalen's clever cross-kick gave Adrien Plante the opportunity to cancel out Casey's score in the left corner, and with Jerome Porical kicking beautifully from the tee, the Catalans always looked capable of scoring. They were, however, incapable of staying on the right side of the law, and it cost them dear. Brian Smith, the London Irish director of rugby, suspects the return match will be "tasty". In fact, he can count on it.
Scorers: London Irish: Tries Casey, penalty; Conversion Hewat; Penalties Hewat 3. Perpignan: Try Plante; Conversion Porical; Penalties Porical (3).
London Irish: P Hewat; T De Vedia, D Armitage, S Mapusua, S Tagicakibau; M Catt, P Richards; D Murphy, D Paice (Roche 50), R Skuse (T Lea'aetoa H-T), N Kennedy, R Casey (capt), K Roche (S Mackie 42), D Danaher (S Armitage 74), J M Leguizamon.
Perpignan: J Porical; C Manas, D Marty, J-P Grandclaude (C Rosalen 35), A Plante; G Hume (D Mele 47), N Durand; P Freshwater (capt, G Britz 71)), M Tincu (G Guirado 53), S Bozzi (N Mas 44), R Alvarez Kairelis, N Hines, V Vaki (O Olibeau 25), D Chouly, H Tuilagi (Britz 3, K Pulu 68).
Referee: M Changleng (Scotland).Reuse content