London Irish lost their first Champions Cup game in a decade despite at one point leading 24-8 against Montpellier, with the combination of Agustin Creevy's first-half red card and a clinical second half by the visitors, including two tries for Thomas Darmon, sealing a bonus-point win for the French side.
"In the first half we were freezing. I was not pleased at all at half-time, we needed more urgency," admitted Philippe Saint-Andre, Montpellier's director of rugby. "I was grumpy, but we showed so much character to win and score four tries, I am very pleased with the guys. It was a great second half."
The Argentina flanker Juan Martin Gonzalez ran the show in the first half, scoring two tries as Irish took a well-deserved 24-13 lead into half-time. But playing with 14 on the field and better intent from Montpellier changed the direction of the contest, as the visitors scored three tries in 13 minutes with Zach Mercer, named player of the match, becoming more prominent.
With the temperature a brisk minus three degrees celsius this was not a night for Benhard Janse van Rensburg to have his bare backside exposed, but despite the wardrobe malfunction his early carry paved the way for Paddy Jackson to open the scoring with three points.
After an earlier miss, Louis Carbonel drew Montpellier level before the French side's powerful scrum churned out a penalty converted by Carbonel which meant the visitors edged ahead. But after Enzo Forletta's yellow card for killing the ball put Montpellier down to 14 players it was Irish who produced the game's first try, Gonzalez going over close to the posts after Ben White's quick tap.
Forletta's absence ended up being expensive. Following a Gonzalez lineout steal, Ollie Hassell-Collins cut through the defence, with Creevy sending over Lucio Cinti for a London Irish try made in Argentina.
The hosts' momentum was then halted by a red card to Creevy for a dangerous tackle making contact with the head of Anthony Bouthier. But Irish were better at the breakdown and lineout and deserved a healthy half-time lead, a second try for Gonzalez after Ben Loader broke clear giving the hosts a 24-13 advantage after Cobus Reinach's try brought an end to the first half.
Not content with a brace of tries, Gonzalez briefly took on the lineout throwing duties as well in Creevy's absence as the hosts went in search of a bonus-point try. Instead, Montpellier were next to score, Darmon finishing off an overlap out wide to cut into Irish's lead.
The effects of that Creevy red card, however, were beginning to show, with Montpellier controlling territory and possession while continually breaking more tackles. Mercer, the No 8 soon on his way back to England with Gloucester, carried with more success and with London Irish stretched again, Alexandre Bécognée scored to give Montpellier the lead, recovering from a 24-8 deficit.
A second for Darmon secured the bonus point and left Montpellier in total control, with Irish wilting. But to their credit the hosts threw everything at Montpellier in the final minutes, only for the visitors to come up with a timely scrum penalty to escape near their own line.
Had Hassell-Collins' foot not found the touchline as he dove for the corner then it might have been a closer finish, but Montpellier held on, with a late Rory Jennings penalty meaning Irish at least secured a bonus point.
Declan Kidney, London Irish's director of rugby, said: "The disappointment which is palpable in the dressing room right now. We have to harness that frustration and use it positively."
London Irish: Loader, Cinti Luna, Joseph, Janse Van Rensburg, Hassell-Collins, Jackson, White, Gigena, Creevy, Chawatama, Simmons, Coleman, Rogerson, Gonzalez, Fa'aso'o.
Replacements: Willemse, Fischetti, Hoskins, Munga, Cunningham-South, Powell, Jennings, Morisi.
Montpellier: Bouthier, Lam, Darmon, Garbisi, Bridge, Carbonel, Reinach, Forletta, Paenga-Amosa, Haouas, Verhaeghe, Chalureau, Camara, Becognee, Mercer.
Replacements: Langdon, Tuinukuafe, Lamositele, Doumenc, Coly, Tisseron, Dakuwaqa, Tauleigne.
Referee: Andrea Piardi (FIR)