Everyone said from the outset of this season's Heineken Cup that London Irish would never have a better chance of reaching the quarter-finals – this being their third attempt. It was not one they passed up here in northern Italy, where the Irish always looked likely to get the win they needed to qualify for the last eight, though the secondary consideration of earning a bonus point to make certain of a more favourable draw kept those in green fretting until Peter Hewat's clinching try in the ninth minute of added time.
It came at a cost as Irish's England scrum-half, Peter Richards, suffered a suspected torn biceps which forced him off at half-time and, subject to a scan tomorrow, may miss some or all of the Six Nations Championship. But if Brian Smith, Irish's director of rugby, was perturbed at the way his side lost direction in Richards' absence and sat too complacently on a three-try, 19-0 interval lead, he was delighted to acclaim a home quarter-final in April as "a milestone for the club and for us in our careers as coaches and players".
Depending on other results Irish may be rematched with the team they beat into second place in Pool Two, Perpignan, and then, who knows?
John Conlan, the London Irish chairman, was cock-a-hoop. "In our previous seasons we've been in the pools of death so it was our turn to have a slightly easier one," said Conlan. "I would expect to see almost a full house for the quarter-final. And if we get to the Heineken Cup final we'll probably fill Cardiff."
On a ground where Bath, Wasps, Harlequins and Newcastle had fallen in past European ties, Treviso's backs surprisingly ran scared initially of Irish's superbly-organised rush defence
Once they had settled, Irish got three-quarters of the way to their try target with scores in the 22nd, 33rd and 36th minutes.
The first, by Richards, came immediately after the Treviso loosehead prop Nicolas de Gregori went to the sin-bin for killing the ball. Irish chose a scrum for the penalty and with a half-twist of the packs Richards scampered through from Juan Leguizamon's flip-up.
Shane Geraghty considered drop-kicking the conversion. Instead Hewat put it over with the tee . A weaving run by Richards ended with the supporting Sailosi Tagicakibau tugged back off the ball by the Treviso tighthead, Salvatore Costanzo. While Richards protested, Geraghty assessed the situation brilliantly, punted the penalty 40 metres crossfield to Tomas de Vedia and the Argentinian wing scored at a canter. Hewat, the Australian full-back, converted again then collected a try of his own straight from a line-out with an outside break by Delon Armitage on to a double miss-pass by Geraghty.
Treviso had only three Italy-born players in yesterday's XV and have made little impact this season. But with Irish dithering, the home side were lifted by two penalties from captain Marius Goosen only for Costanzo to turn briefly hare-brained with his fists on the fringe of a ruck and go to the sin-bin. Surely that was the cue for Irish to collect their bonus? Anything but. Pretty much everything that could go wrong – bar the result itself – did go wrong in the final quarter.
With 74 minutes gone, Treviso's Puma wing Lucas Borges combined with Williams to make a try for Benjamin de Jager. Then, from the restart, Irish allowed a scrum to be wheeled and lost the put-in and, horror of horrors soon afterwards, Treviso nicked a throw from the renowned Irish line-out.
But Hewat's crowning moment was yet to come. Geraghty shimmied, Gonzalo Tiesi was held and Bob Casey held on perhaps too long. From the resulting scrum almost under the Treviso posts, replacement No 8 Phil Murphy had a short charge and from a pass by Richards' stand-in, Paul Hodgson, Hewat forced through a trio of Treviso tackles with a little help from his friend, De Vedia.
Treviso: B Williams; L Borges, M Goosen (capt), D Heidtmann (A Sgarbi, 34), B de Jager (M Barbieri, 21-32); A Marcato, F Semenzato; N de Gregori (M Barbieri, 51), F Sbaraglini, S Costanzo, R Labuschagne (W Johnson, 42), C van Zyl, R Barbieri (S Orlando, 51), D Kingi, H Louw (S Palmer, 68).
London Irish: P Hewat; T de Vedia, D Armitage, G Tiesi, S Tagicakibau; S Geraghty, P Richards (P Hodgson, h-t); T Lea'aetoa, D Paice (D Coetzee, 66), F Rautenbach (D Murphy, 34), N Kennedy (J Hudson, 78), R Casey (capt), R Thorpe (S Armitage, 66), J Leguizamon (P Murphy, 76), D Danaher.
Referee: P Gauzere (France).