If Mike Catt is not quite on his last legs, he is very definitely knocking on a bit: those noting the presence of Tom Homer in the same London Irish squad for the Guinness Premiership semi-final here could not help wondering if the grand old man of English rugby had played alongside Homer himself. Deep into his 38th year, Catt turned in memorable a performance – a touch of the heroic, a hint of the poetic – during the 83 minutes he was on the field, and if he can hold the sporting embalmers at bay just a little longer, this Saturday's final against Leicester should at least be a contest.
"Leicester may have had a hard run of matches, but there will be no vulnerability about them – not with their squad," said Catt, a few minutes after plucking a floated pass from the Harlequins scrum-half Andy Gomarsall out of the ether and scuttling off to the posts for the wrap-up score. "While they've done all this before, it will be a brand new experience for our team. But we've bought ourselves a lottery ticket. It's 50-50 now."
Gomarsall should have known better than to chance his arm with his old colleague and adversary in the vicinity. The two men were playing international rugby together as far back as the autumn of 1996, when some others on show here – Jordan Turner-Hall, say, or Alex Corbisiero – were still in primary school, and they have shared a pitch on dozens of occasions since. Still, it was a satisfying conclusion to a hard-fought, occasionally sour London derby between two clubs who have never pretended to be bosom pals. When the dogs are doing their worst, the arrival of a Catt is good for the soul.
Not that the World Cup-winning midfielder was a paragon of innocence. His early hit on Danny Care was far from the best, and it sparked a prolonged bout of argy-bargy that might have continued into Sunday had Bob Casey, the rumbustious London Irish captain, managed to find his way into the middle of it. Happily for those hoping to catch the last train home, he was engaged on the fringes by the equally combative Chris Robshaw. By the time Casey wrestled himself free of his opponent, some semblance of order had been restored.
London Irish had set out their stall, though. Of the enforcers on the field, a clear majority were to be found in the visiting pack: Casey, Danie Coetzee, Steffon Armitage... Quins had no obvious answer to these three, and when the really scary member of the Exiles' forward operation, Chris Hala'ufia, started throwing his weight around, the home side retreated on to the back foot and stayed there. Hala'ufia once played his rugby here, so far from being a nasty surprise, he was just as horrible as Quins remembered. Which was enough.
Of course, Casey and company are acutely aware that their chances of bossing Leicester around to a similar degree are non-existent. Marcos Ayerza? Martin Castrogiovanni? Julian White? Jordan Crane? These people are not for bossing. Even so, Irish might find a way of achieving something close to parity in the forward exchanges, and if they succeed, their back division will ask some interesting questions. Who says so? Why, none other than Dean Richards, the Quins director of rugby, who, as a great Leicester forward of yore continues to take a keen interest in affairs up there in the East Midlands.
"I don't think London Irish have the front row to compete with Leicester's," said Richards, who, having just seen his side pulverised at the scrum, must rate his old club's set piece very highly indeed. "But they are exceptionally good in the back row, and they are a threat outside. With 45 per cent possession, or even 40 per cent, they'll be dangerous."
It is not like Richards to give anyone a snowball's chance in hell against a Leicester side primed for the big occasion, so the Exiles clearly impressed him. Steffon Armitage certainly did – "Absolutely outstanding," admitted the Great Shambling Bear – and it was the flanker's relentless hounding of Care that did most to smother any attacking momentum generated by the home side. He was a force with ball in hand, too: picking a beautiful line on Adam Thompstone, he was within a gnat's crotchet of making it to the right corner when Mike Brown tackled him into touch.
The Quins full-back's defensive efforts ensured that the first half stayed scoreless, but when Armitage the Elder, otherwise known as Delon, hit the spot with a straightforward penalty three minutes after the interval, there seemed little prospect of Irish relinquishing their lead. So it proved. Catt's game-management instincts grew sharper by the second – the try-scoring pass he delivered to James Hudson was a peach – and with the brilliant front-row prospect Corbisiero making his presence felt off the bench, the game was won long before Gomarsall committed his faux pas.
Both Catt and his director of rugby, Toby Booth, consider next season to be an open book. Catt is increasingly of the view that he should concentrate on coaching, and Booth agrees with him, but injuries might force the old boy to drag himself through another summer of purgatory on the conditioning front, just in case.
The immediate question is this: can Catt drag himself through 80 minutes of purgatory against Leicester? If he manages it, he can legitimately call it a day. As Booth said: "I'd never ask Mike to stop playing, but I might tell him."
Scorers: London Irish: Tries Hudson, Catt; Conversions D Armitage 2; Penalty D Armitage.
Harlequins: M Brown; T Williams (D Barry, 73), G Tiesi, J Turner-Hall, U Monye; N Evans (W Luveniyali, 65), D Care (A Gomarsall, 65); C Jones, T Fuga (G Botha, 54), M Ross (M Lambert, 79), J Percival (J Evans, 54), G Robson, C Robshaw (T Guest, 67), W Skinner (capt), N Easter.
London Irish: P Hewat; A Thompstone (T Homer, 69), D Armitage, S Mapusua (E Seveali'i, 77), S Tagicakibau; M Catt (P Richards, 80), P Hodgson; C Dermody, D Coetzee (J Buckland, 63), R Skuse (A Corbisiero, 50), N Kennedy (J Hudson, 36), R Casey (capt), D Danaher, S Armitage, C Hala'ufia (R Thorpe, 50).
Referee: C White (Gloucestershire).Reuse content