The fairy tale continues. Harlequins, as attractive as an endowment mortgage but nothing if not idiosyncratic, returned to the peak of he Zurich Premiership yesterday. At this rate they will be issuing oxygen masks with the season tickets.
Quins suspected this would be a very awkward assignment indeed and they were not wrong. London Irish gave it everything, but in the end were undone by the goal-kicking of an Irishman. Paul Burke landed four penalties out of four, all of them given an almighty thump, and the only consolation for the Exiles was that by scoring the sole try a defeat by five points earned them a bonus point.
Led by the South African Andre Vos, Quins scrapped for a victory that at any other time would have probably been beyond them. They dogged it out, revealing that under the pinstriped suits is a touch of the mongrel.
Before moving to the Madejski Stadium near Reading, the Irish used to co-habit The Stoop with Quins. It was a love-hate relationship: the Exiles loved monopolising the bar, which Quins hated, so yesterday they went at it like a couple after a particularly messy divorce.
At half time the score was a throwback to amateur days - a penalty each and not a try in sight. For the first 10 minutes Quins, who had scored 76 points in their first two victories, barely touched the ball. Burke, on standby for Ireland's World Cup squad, was required to do a tremendous amount of tackling.
But for all their possession, organisation and aggression, the Irish were ill-rewarded, although Paul Sackey demonstrated that Ugo Monye is a much better attacker than defender.
The young Quins left-wing had made a sensational start to the season with two tries against Wasps and three against Rotherham to become the Premiership's leading try-scorer. Yesterday Sackey exposed his Achilles heel. On two occasions the Irish wing easily rounded Monye, revealing a naïveté that others will exploit.
The Irish were incapable of doing so, principally because of Quins' upgraded defence, and all they had to show for immense early pressure was a penalty in the seventh minute by Barry Everitt. Five minutes later Quins were level, Burke sweetly striking the first of his penalties. It was a pretty dire half, during which Quins lost their promising lock Simon Miall, who was carried off with a knee injury.
Ace Tiatia, Quins' ferocious Samoan hooker, is usually good for a yellow card, but yesterday he managed to avoid the sinbin even though he drove, shoulder first, into a ruck, injuring Nick Greenstock, the former Quins centre, in the process. Greenstock went off and the only thing the referee Steve Lander exchanged with Ace was a smile.
When Chris Sheasby, another former Quin, dropped a kick ahead from Monye, Sackey fell offside and Burke banged over the penalty to give Quins the lead for the first time after 47 minutes. Everitt, who a couple of seasons ago could not put a foot wrong, then suffered an uncomfortable five minutes which allowed Quins to consolidate their advantage. First the stand-off was off target with a penalty attempt, the sort that he used to slot over in his sleep, and then he fell foul of referee Lander for a high tackle on the tenacious Mel Deane. The result was that Burke added another penalty and Quins edged 12-3 in front when Josh Taumalolo, the Tongan making his debut, dropped a goal.
Before Burke kicked a fourth penalty to make it 15-3, the Irish should have scored when Michael Horak broke into the Quins 22, but instead of releasing men outside he chose to go alone and was grounded just short.
The force remained with the Irish, but they squandered another glorious opportunity when the skipper Ryan Strudwick, with only one man to beat, delivered a pass to his left. Unfortunately it went straight to Ben Willis and, given the many colours on the Quins jerseys, he could not pretend he had mistaken him for a team-mate. In fact, Strudwick was conned by Willis, who shouted: "Pass it to me." Strudwick said: "I fell for the oldest trick in the book." Irish finally scored with a well-worked try from Ed Thrower, but the timing was wrong.
Both clubs spent much of last season worrying about relegation. Already newly promoted Rotherham are favourites to go back down. It would be a disaster for the Yorkshire club and not much better for the Premiership but the ring-fencers, even at this embryonic stage, will be sleeping easier in their beds.
Harlequins 15 London Irish 10
Pens: Burke 4; Try: Thrower
Drop: Taumalolo; Con: Everitt
Half-time: 3-3 Attendance: 8,500
Harlequins: G Duffy; R Jewell, J Taumalolo, M Deane, U Monye; P Burke, B Willis; M Worsley (C Jones, 55), A Tiatia, J Dawson (L Gomez, 64), B Davison, S Miall (J Evans, 22), P Sanderson, T Diprose, A Vos (capt).
London Irish: M Horak; P Sackey (E Thrower, 63), G Appleford, N Greenstock (M Cannon, 43), J Bishop; B Everitt, D Edwards; N Hatley (P Durant, 73), N Drotske, R Hardwick, R Strudwick (capt), B Casey (K Roche, 73), P Gustard (P Murphy, 57), C Sheasby, K Dawson.
Referee: S Lander (Liverpool).
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