For those people who made Toulouse their pre-tournament favourites the opening quarter of their eighth Heineken Cup campaign was hardly anything to shout about. London Irish, on the other hand, announced their arrival among Europe's élite with a helter-skelter start that saw them race into a nine point lead.
After an indifferent time in their domestic league, this was a real step up for the Exiles. The return of player/coach Brendan Venter to the centre added extra bite to his side and everyone around him followed the former Springbok's enthusiastic lead. Unfortunately, Venter breathed too much fire and brimstone for the liking of Welsh referee Nigel Whitehouse and was given a 10-minute spell in the sin-bin early in the second half for his second high tackle. It was a crucial moment.
When he left the action his side were still ahead by a point. Yet by the time Venter was replaced by Nick Burrows at the end of his 10-minute breather the Exiles found themselves six points behind.
More importantly to Toulouse's European hopes, the Maka brothers, Isitolo and Finau, had begun to build up a head of steam in the home pack and the inaugural champions had found a way to release their new secret weapon on the wing.
Not many people outside of France will have heard of Vincent Clerc just yet, but he could well turn into one of the stars of the tournament. Two tries, and the man of the match award, on your European debut can't be bad and the boy has pace to burn.
It was the boot of Barry Everitt which dominated proceedings in the first half as he kept the Irish on the front foot with a penalty and then a brace of drop goals which gave the visitors that impressive early lead. It wasn't until the 25th minute that Toulouse looked like a team ready to compete, when Jean-Baptiste Elissalde kicked a penalty.
The Frenchmen hauled themselves to within one point after Trevor Brennan, an Irishman, had taken a five-metre lineout and Isitolo Maka came up with the try.
Everitt stroked home a second penalty a minute before the interval and not even a response from the half-way line by Fréderic Michalak could get Toulouse ahead. Everitt struck his third penalty 11 minutes later, but then came Venter's indiscretion and Toulouse's hot reply.
Toulouse: Poitrenaud; Ntamack, Desbrosses, Garbajosa (Heymans 67), Clerc; Elissalde, Michalak (Delaigue 74); Collazo, Bru (W Servat 62), Lecours, Gerrard (Brennan 21), Pelous (F Maka 43), Bouilhou (Marfaing 78), C Labit (Poux 80), I Maka.
London Irish: Horak; Sackey, Appleford, Venter (Burrows 64), Bishop; Everitt, Edwards; Hatley (Worsley 43), Drotske (Flavin 84), Hardwick (Durant 58), Strudwick, Casey, Danaher, Dawson, Gustard (Burke 61)
Referee: N Whitehouse (Wales).
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