Harlequins 19 London Irish 22
Before the Premiership broke for the autumn international window, London Irish were the league’s entertaining underachievers. No longer. This hard-fought derby victory over Harlequins, inspired by the brilliant Curtis Rona, was thoroughly deserved.
Marcus Smith, Alex Dombrandt and Joe Marchant were absent for the defending champions, the first two rested with the third having tweaked his hamstring during the week. Joe Marler, the last of their England contingent, was among their starters, but could not deny Declan Kidney’s side a second win of their campaign to go with three draws. As well as Rona, fellow centre Benhard Janse van Rensburg was also excellent in a determined and cohesive performance that completed an upset.
“There was a lot of emotion tonight and Quins bring out the best out of us,” said Les Kiss, the Irish head coach. “The boys knew they had to give the best versions of ourselves to get the win.”
Irish won the coin toss and opted to play into a significant wind, yet started in assured fashion. Rona swooped over Harlequins wing Oscar Beard to force a breakdown penalty, which also sparked a scrap as Tom Pearson and Danny Care introduced themselves. The visitors kicked to touch and burly carries from Van Rensburg and Olly Cracknell led to another Harlequins offence. Paddy Jackson split the posts.
The sell-out crowd was stirred momentarily by Tommaso Allan’s chip, collected by a charging Andre Esterhuizen. Although Care followed up in support, Irish recovered well and averted the danger. Indeed, they fired another warning shot soon afterwards. Jackson wrapped around Rona in a polished strike-move and, having arced around from the opposite flank, Ollie Hassell-Collins made ground.
Harlequins probed too. There are high hopes for Beard, and his offload to Tyrone Green stretched Irish. But the defensive excellence of Cracknell, a new back-row signing from Ospreys, thwarted the hosts twice inside the 22.
At the start of the second quarter, Irish cracked. Playing under penalty advantage because of Rob Simmons’s off-the-ball tackle on Dino Lamb, Care curled away from a ruck and lifted a left-footed chip into space. Kyle Rowe fumbled and Beard could score his first, and what may turn out to be his easiest, Premiership try.
Allan added the extras before Pearson earned a penalty from the restart to exert pressure on Harlequins. The power and organisation of the Irish pack muscled a series of penalties and, eventually Agustin Creevy benefited from a rumbling maul. Jackson converted.
A full-stretch line-out steal from Adam Coleman protected a 10-7 advantage for Irish but Harlequins hit back immediately after the towering lock limped off the pitch. Jack Walker surged around a breakdown to take a pass from Care, who had sucked in fringe defenders, and flicked to Luke Northmore. The centre scored under the posts. Harlequins almost surrendered their lead straightaway when Allan misjudged a kick. Care needed to scramble to dislodge the ball from Tom Parton. In the chaotic aftermath, Allan went down clutching a shoulder. Will Edwards replaced him.
Marler spearheaded a shove that brought a scrum penalty before the break and Harlequins seemed to carry that momentum into the second half.
Esterhuizen’s chip caused Rowe to give up a five-metre scrum. Consecutive penalties resulted as the Irish set-piece creaked. They would not crumble. When Harlequins spread the ball wide, Rona completed his second turnover.
The next time Irish had their hands on the ball, Nick Phipps and Matt Rogerson combined to release Parton down a narrow blindside. Rona looped a fine pass to Simmons and the lock loped over to land a pivotal sucker-punch.
The composure of Irish in possession, passing crisply and showing confidence in their structure with Jackson and Rona running the show, was impressive. On the back of another close-range line-out, replacement scrum-half Ben White wriggled over. Beard almost sparked a quick riposte by escaping two tackles. Jack Kenningham could not gather Care’s pass, but Harlequins would respond soon enough. Esterhuizen made ground from a line-out and his team zig-zagged. Care fed Tom Lawday, who put Beard clear.
Irish had chances to pull away again. Hassell-Collins scythed through, only to disregard support runners to his right. As rain swept around the field, Huw Jones and Cadan Murley ran Harlequins out of their own half and threatened to rescue a result. Irish recovered. Hassell-Collins tackled Murley and Rona – who else? – collared Green two phases later before ending the contest the way it had started, by burrowing in to win a breakdown penalty.
“Before the game I was sure the team that got a lot of rhythm, was going to get a long way towards winning,” said Tabai Matson, Harlequins’ senior coach. “We definitely didn’t get much rhythm.”
Irish did, and shimmied up the Premiership table. They will be eyeing the play-off places with Newcastle at home next. Whether or not they get there, it will not be dull to watch.
Scoring sequence (London Irish first): 3-0 Jackson penalty, 3-5 Beard try, 3-7 Allan conversion, 8-7 Creevy try, 10-7 Jackson conversion, 10-12 Nothmore try, 10-14 Allan conversion, 15-14 Simmons try, 20-14 White try, 22-14 Jackson conversion, 22-19 Beard try
Harlequins: T Green; O Beard, L Northmore (H Jones, 55), A Esterhuizen, C Murley; T Allan (W Edwards, 38), D Care; J Marler, J Walker, W Collier (S Kerrod, 54), D Lamb (H Tizard, 58), S Lewies, J Chisholm, J Kenningham, T Lawday (V Taulani, 67).
Replacements not used: J Musk, S Garcia Botta, L Gjaltema.
London Irish: T Parton; K Rowe, C Rona, B van Rensburg, O Hassell-Collins; P Jackson, N Phipps (B White, 55); W Goodrick-Clarke (A Dell, 68), A Creevy (M Willemse, 64), O Hoskins (C Parker, 68), A Coleman (S Mafi, 36), R Simmonds, M Rogerson, T Pearson, O Cracknell (A Tuisue, 55).
Replacements not used: R Jennings, M Williams.
Referee: Mr C Ridley (RFU).