Exiles reach for losers' lexicon while Quins roll on

Harlequins 26 London Irish 15: Irish steel themselves for a relegation dogfight after being tormented by league leaders

Twickenham

The biggest thing to come out of Harlequins' fifth festive-season "Big Game" was the sense of London Irish's anxiety at their predicament near the foot of the Premiership table. The Exiles' director of rugby, Brian Smith, needed little prompting to pepper his verdict on their position, a single point above the bottom club Sale and eight behind London Welsh, with words such as "dogfights", "vulnerable" and "rollercoaster".

Harlequins, the champions, stand at the summit now, as they did 12 months ago, so they could afford some post-match magnanimity from their director of rugby and former London Irish captain, Conor O'Shea.

"I can sit back and support London Irish as my old club, as we don't play them for the rest of season," said O'Shea, whose coaching panel were in clover at the sight of Harlequins' tight-forwards wrenching a glut of points and good position out of the scrummage, including the penalty try with two minutes remaining that denied Irish a bonus point.

The immense tighthead prop James Johnston may not be at Quins in the long term – "It's all about money," said O'Shea of the rumours linking Johnston with a move to France in the summer – but by the end of the season the Samoan will have had a big say in the genuinely big games Harlequins hope to be playing in pursuit of both the Premiership and Heineken Cup titles.

Quins' 53rd-minute try was just as illuminating of Irish's shortcomings. The England scrum-half Danny Care crabbed right to left from a line-out, taking the time he wanted to weigh up his options before feeding Nick Evans to make a straight run into Irish's defensive cover.

Care followed up with still plenty to do, but with a determined wriggle and a dive forward off his knees he was able to place and roll the ball the last couple of centimetres over the goalline. You felt it was a try Quins would never have allowed at the other end, but Irish are rebuilding after a huge turnover in personnel last year. With no win in the Premiership for three months, they have lost seven in a row in all competitions.

Four weeks ago England beat New Zealand here in what was, to be sure, a rather Bigger Game – or match, if you don't mind the correct rugby terminology. Evans briefly experienced some of the kicking woes suffered by his fellow All Black fly-half Dan Carter that day, but only in the second quarter, with a couple of kicks off-target.

Otherwise Evans popped over four out of four after half-time to add to his pair of penalties awarded at scrums in the opening 24 minutes, when he went tit for tat with Irish's Ian Humphreys, who also missed two from long range in the first half in a swirling wind.

The cynic might have seen Irish's penalty at the first scrum of the second half as an act of evening up by the referee, but that was as good as it got for them in that department. Humphreys knocked over three more penalties to Evans's two, but with Care's try converted by Evans at the heart of that burst of scoring, Harlequins were never behind.

Without a sold set-piece platform – twice Quins stole ball at crucial line-outs – Irish struggled to launch what ought to be one of the Premiership's most dangerous midfields in Sailosi Tagicakibau and Jonathan Joseph. More's the pity, with the pace of Topsy Ojo and Marland Yarde out wide. And both sides' handling was affected by the incessant drizzle.

But Harlequins overall are in their pomp right now, and commercially too. The "Big Game" began with a draw against Leicester in 2008 watched by 55,000, and yesterday all 82,000-plus tickets were sold. Is this really the same club and the same ground of the somnolent sunny Septembers a generation ago, when the attendance would be the proverbial two men and a dog for Quins' early-season fixtures with the likes of Llanelli and Swansea?

Among the many changes the Twickenham turf has received the equivalent of a hair transplant, ensuring a decent foothold when Chris Robshaw – who endured the odd debatable decision here as England captain in the autumn – confidently went for the jugular with the late scrums prompted by Irish's Pat Phibbs being sent to the sin-bin for diving on Care behind a ruck.

Irish twice wheeled and broke up with only half their forwards left facing their opponents, and that was enough for the referee, Greg Garner, to trot to the posts.

O'Shea predicted the clubs fighting relegation would need 30 points to make sure of safety. Irish currently have 12. Smith said his club, coaches and senior players were "rock solid" – perhaps inviting comparison with Sale whose coaching consultant, John Mitchell, jacked in a short-lived stint yesterday – and needed the youngsters to be the same. Their rollercoaster looks likely to be white-knuckling all the way to the 30 March date with Sale at the Madejski Stadium.

Harlequins M Brown (B Botica, 59); T Williams, M Hopper, T Casson (G Lowe, 52), U Monye; N Evans, D Care (K Dickson, 78); J Marler (M Lambert, 78), J Gray (R Buchanan, 57), J Johnston (W Collier, 78), O Kohn (C Matthews, 78), G Robson, M Fa'asavalu (T Guest, 48), N Easter, C Robshaw (capt).

London Irish T Homer; T Ojo, J Joseph, S Tagicakibau (G Armitage, 78), M Yarde; I Humphreys, D Allinson (P Phibbs, 56); M Lahiff (J Yanuyanutawa, 70), D Paice (S Lawson, 78), H Aulika (L Halavatua, 76), B Evans, M Garvey (G Skivington, 70), D Danaher (capt), C Hala'ufia (J Gibson, 56), J Sinclair.

Referee G Garner (London).

Harlequins

Tries: Care, penalty

Cons: Evans 2

Pens: Evans 4

London Irish

Pens: Humphreys 5

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