Chris Robshaw, the England captain, left the Madejski Stadium tonight looking like Cyclops. "The bruising is going down, the sight is coming back and I'll be fine in a day or so," he commented, having taken a fearful smack in the left eye after half an hour of a highly entertaining, highly controversial Premiership derby. The fact that the home crowd were accusing the match officials of being equally myopic said all that needed saying about the nature of the denouement.
There were 59 seconds left on the clock when Harlequins, showing the brass balls of a champion side, recovered from Ian Humphreys' seventh perfectly-struck penalty goal – a strike that gave London Irish a two-point advantage – to launch one last assault on the opposition line. Ugo Monye, who had the whitewash in his sights before being clattered hard by the covering Guy Armitage, managed to complete an overarm inside pass to Tom Casson, who fumbled the ball and then flopped on to it in the act of scoring.
Neither Casson nor his colleague Mike Brown, the closest Harlequin to the incident, thought the try had been completed: Casson stared disconsolately at the heavens; Brown held his head in his hands. But after a long examination of the film footage, the television match official Graham Hughes decided that while it may have been a moral knock-on – or rather, an immoral one – it was not a knock-on of the factual variety. He awarded the try, and that was that.
"I'm not going to bite," said Brian Smith, the London Irish rugby director, when encouraged to vent his spleen in the direction of Mr Hughes, the referee Tim Wigglesworth and everyone else in a decision-making role. "To focus on that one moment wouldn't be right, because what happened there was … well, it's rugby, isn't it? It's life. These things happen. It's a grey area of the law, the guy with the responsibility made his call and while I don't agree with it, the Harlequins people will think he got it right. It's always annoying to lose a tight one, especially at home, but the main thing from our point of view is that we've proved we're a good side. We went toe to toe with the champions and would have been worthy winners."
Robshaw was not the only England player in the wars in front of a 10,000-plus crowd. Jonathan Joseph, capped against the Springboks in Johannesburg last June and considered by many good judges to be a potential saviour of the England midfield, aggravated a long-standing ankle injury and was replaced after the hour- mark. There was nothing to suggest the newcomer's chances of facing Fiji at Twickenham in a dozen days might be under threat, but given the tide of bad news on the injury front, the red-rose coaches would much rather he had been able to stay the distance.
Of all the England candidates on view here, Joseph was perhaps the most impressive. One beautifully balanced break down the left touchline shortly before the interval forced Quins into scramble mode and led Brown, their full-back, to commit an indiscretion deemed serious enough to warrant a trip to the cooler. At that stage, the scores were locked at 16-apiece, Armitage and Danny Care having swapped first-quarter tries direct from opposition errors: the first the result a clearance chargedown by the energetic Jamie Gibson; the second the consequence of a botched off-load attempt from the over-ambitious Anthony Watson.
While Brown was kicking his heels, Ben Botica inched Quins in front with a straightforward penalty from centre field, but Humphreys levelled it again a couple of minutes later. The stand-off, recruited from Ulster at the end of last season, might have done even better had he kept the ball in hand with an entire trackful of sprinters outside him – Gibson, Armitage, Watson and Sailosi Tagicakibau are all as quick as you like – but with the penalty advantage being played, he chipped to the left corner and wasted the opportunity.
That error of judgement quickly came back to haunt the Exiles. Care's cleverly-timed flat delivery to Matt Hopper from a set-piece move allowed the centre to suck in defenders and free-up space for Botica, who nursed Tom Williams in at the right flag. Botica nailed his conversion via the far upright and suddenly, the champions were in clear blue water.
Not that it was quite clear or blue enough for comfort. Humphreys atoned for his sin by hitting the spot with testing penalties on 66 and 72 minutes, and with the London Irish locks Bryn Evans and Matt Garvey putting in major shifts at the coalface, there was no obvious prospect of Quins responding. But respond they did, covering the best part of 70 metres with their first attack before striking lucky with their second.
"This," said Conor O'Shea, Harlequins' director of rugby, "is a massive four points for us. Come the end of the season, the value of the victory will be clear. Mind you, I might have a word with Casson and Brown about their body language."
It was difficult to disagree with the main thrust of his argument. When Leicester were winning Premiership titles year after year, their success was built on chiselling out tight victories on the road, frequently with tries at the last knockings. By doing something similar without performing particularly well, Quins proved themselves worthy of the Midlanders' mantle.
Scorers: London Irish: Try Armitage. Conversion Humphreys. Penalties Humphreys 7. Harlequins: Tries Care, Williams, Casson. Conversions Botica 2. Penalties Botica 4.
London Irish A Watson; T Ojo, J Joseph (S Shingler, 62), G Armitage, S Tagicakibau; I Humphreys, T O'Leary (D Allinson, h-t); M Lahiff (C Griffiths, 77), D Paice (S Lawson, 62), H Aulika (L Halavatau, 62), B Evans, M Garvey, D Danaher, J Gibson, C Hala'ufia (O Treviranus, 52).
Harlequins M Brown; T Williams, M Hopper, T Casson, U Monye; B Botica, D Care; J Marler, R Buchanan (D Ward, 47), J Johnston (W Collier, 66), O Kohn, G Robson, T Guest, C Robshaw (capt, M Fa'asavalu, 30), N Easter.
Referee T Wigglesworth (Yorkshire)..