Wrecking ball Armitage has a hand in Exiles stalemate

Harlequins 9 London Irish 9
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The Independent Online

London Irish have started to make a habit of winning ugly as their quest for an elusive Guinness Premiership title heads into the winter, but their gritty progress was stalled yesterday by the stray hand of Steffon Armitage.

The flanker was one of the seven EPS players released by Martin Johnson, the England manager, for this weekend's fixtures and he produced a typically all-action display in what was a battle of attrition at the Stoop. But the man who at times acted as a one-man wrecking ball through Quins' defence blotted his copybook by interfering illegally in a ruck with 90 seconds left. Rory Clegg, the 19-year-old making his first start for Quins, kept his nerve to stroke over the resulting penalty as time elapsed and the spoils were shared.

"Steffon's had a go at a breakdown – some you get, some you don't. You have a gamble," said Toby Booth, the Exiles' head coach.

Irish failed in their bid for a sixth straight league win and they will head into a three-week Premiership hiatus wondering what might have been. After some early-season fireworks that saw them scoring tries for fun, they were reliant on the boot of a cluster of goalkickers for recent victories over Sale and Leicester. Unfortunately, Irish were again dragged into a real war at the coalface here by a Quins side who have now gone four league matches without defeat.

The spectacle undoubtedly suffered as a result of the 17th-minute withdrawal of Sailosi Tagicakibau, Irish's Fijian winger, who trudged off after turning his ankle following a typically buccaneering raid down the left wing moments earlier.

Without their, and the league's, leading tryscorer, Irish focused on ploughing channels through midfield. Armitage was superb in that regard and would have delighted Johnson with his performance, his late aberration apart. But it meant a sturdy defence would always win the day, and there were two of them here.

By half-time, Clegg and Ryan Lamb, the visiting fly-half, had both slotted over two of their three penalty attempts, but the first half was otherwise a non-event in terms of free-flowing rugby. Warren Gatland, so critical of England's top division this week, would have been smirking.

The second half was no better and neither line was seriously threatened throughout apart from in the 55th minute, when Mike Brown, the Quins full-back, burst through midfield and chipped over Peter Hewat, his opposite number, only to be denied a try by Armitage's superb covering defence. Hewat kicked a 72nd-minute penalty that looked to have won it for Irish, but then there was Clegg's late intervention.

"Justice was done," claimed John Kingston, Quins' director of rugby. "It was the least we deserved, but I think London Irish did enough to warrant getting something too."

Harlequins M Brown; D Strettle, G Tiesi, N Mordt, J Drauniniu (G Lowe, 60); R Clegg, S So'oialo (K Dickson, 62); C Jones, T Fuga (C Brooker, 60), J Andress (M Lambert, 65), J Percival, G Robson, C Robshaw (capt), T Guest, N McMillan.

London Irish P Hewat; J Rudd, E Seveali'i, S Mapusua, S Tagicakibau (P Richards, 17); R Lamb (C Malone, 60), A Lalanne (J Lennard, 60); C Dermody (D Murphy, 79), D Coetzee (D Paice, 60), P Ion (F Rautenbach, 60), N Kennedy, B Casey (capt), G Stowers (R Thorpe, 63), C Hala'uifa (K Roche, 79), S Armitage.

Referee: G Clancy (Ireland).