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Despite scoring the only try of the game eight minutes before full time, London Irish went down to an uncompromising Harlequins team at a sunlit Stoop this afternoon.
Ed Thrower’s 72nd minute try was well deserved as Irish had once again played the better rugby however, the Exiles were the authors of their own downfall as time and again they conceded penalties or turned over the ball at crucial times.
Conceding penalties when there is a world class kicker like Paul Burke in the opposing team, can only have one consequence and that is a three point deficit. And so it proved Burke’s three second-half penalties and an opportunist drop goal by centre Josh Taumalolo was the difference between the teams until Thrower’s try.
From the kick-off Irish were the more enterprising as wave after wave of attack forced Harlequins to defend. As early as the fourth minute a drop goal attempt by Barry Everitt drifted just wide of the left upright.
Just three minutes later Everitt was to make amends when he coolly slotted a penalty between the posts for a three point lead. This was to be short lived as his opposite number Paul Burke was successful with a penalty kick in the 11th minute to level the score.
Over the next twenty minutes both teams tried and tried again to find a way through equally determined defences. Nick Greenstock, who was making his debut for Irish (ironically as it happened against his former club) was prominent, as the visitors rebuffed the home side’s efforts.
There were worrying signs for Irish fans in the 8,500 sell-out crowd as once again the Exiles gave the ball away in contact. In addition, Harlequins were causing problems for the Irish line-out. Some of the blame for their success in this context can be attributed to Mike Worsley who left Sunbury for the Stoop in the summer armed with a considerable insight into the workings of the Irish forward game plan.
As the second quarter developed both teams were being forced into making errors, this was due to the intensity of the defending. From a Irish point of view the pack led as usual by the indefatigable Ryan Strudwick, worked ceaselessly to break up the home side’s attacking efforts. They were assisted by the backs in particular Paul Sackey who in the course of the 70 minutes he was on the pitch, gave the highly rated Ugo Monye a lesson in the skills of playing on the wing in the Premiership.
Both sides started the second half in typically frantic fashion with Irish having the better of the early exchanges. As in the opening half however, they found the home defence frustrated their efforts and had the ability to turn defence into attack quickly. It was from one such break out that Chris Sheasby’s normally sound handling let him down and he conceded a penalty which Burke kicked to give his team the lead for the first tim in the match.
Harlequins were to retain the lead as Burke added another penalty in the 64th minute to stretch the lead to six points. His outside centre, Tongan Josh Taumalolo added a well struck drop goal six minutes later for a score of 12-3. Five minutes later Burke rounded off a perfect afternoon’s place kicking when he made it four out of four with another penalty.
Irish were stung by this score and launched a series of forward led drives. From one of these captain Ryan Strudwick broke through and raced for the line. Ryan only had Gavin Duffy, the Quins’ full back to beat when he passed the ball as he thought to one of his team mates; however, the pass went straight into the hands of the home side’s scrum-half Ben Willis, who had deceived Ryan with a clever call, before racing away to clear the danger!
Further Exiles’ pressure forced the home side to concede a penalty which Barry Everitt kicked to touch. Irish won the resulting line-out on the right and moved the ball swiftly left to Ed Thrower, on as a replacement for Paul Sackey, who was too strong for the home backs and touched down twenty metres left of the posts. Everitt converted to narrow the score to 15-10.
In a hectic closing ten minutes Irish sought the try that might bring them victory but once again their frailties let them and the home side held on to record their third successive victory of the new season.
Irish left the Stoop licking their wounds as a questionable late tackle on Nick Greenstock by Ace Tiatia in the 53rd minute left the centre with a seriously injured shoulder that will keep him out for at least eight weeks.
Speaking after the game head coach, Gary Gold said he was disappointed with the result: “We played most of the rugby and yet once again, we were authors of our downfall conceding penalties when we shouldn’t.”
Scorers: NEC Harlequins: Drop Goal: Taumalolo (60). Penalty goals: Burke 4 (11, 58, 64, 65). London Irish: Try: Thrower 72; Conversion: Everitt; Penalty goal: Everitt (7)
Scoring sequence (Harlequins first): 0-3, 3-3 (half-time) 6-3, 9-3, 12-3, 15-3, 15-10.
Referee: S Lander (RFU)