London Irish 20 Harlequins 19: Flutey's high note lifts off-song Irish

Harlequins miss Mehrtens as Exiles win stop-start season opener with a late penalty
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The Independent Online

Welcome back to the Guinness Premiership. Harlequins, who experienced defeat on one occasion last season during their remorseless ascent back to the top, tasted the dregs yesterday. It's a cruel old game.

Quins, who had spent most of the game on the back foot, recaptured the lead with their first and last try in the 75th minute. At 19-17 they were dreaming of a winning return and a confidence-boosting start to the campaign. A few minutes later they were cursing their luck and the referee David Rose, who gave Riki Flutey the opportunity to kick London Irish to victory.

The New Zealander failed with his first match-winning attempt in the 78th minute but was on target with another long-range effort two minutes later. In all he kicked four penalties and a drop goal and afterwards revealed that he had benefited from the assistance of the kicking coach Dave Alred, who was sacked by England a couple of months ago.

Thus the Irish, who were third in the Premiership last season and qualified for the Heineken Cup, won the first of the day's London derbies by a try, a drop goal and four penalties to a goal and four penalties. A tumultuous finish then in a 39-point thriller. Not really. The curtain-raiser was covered in dust, the errors, forced and unforced, were too numerous to count and the players found it difficult to distinguish between a rugby ball and a moth ball.

"The players are bitterly disappointed," Dean Richards, the Quins coach, said. "They're kicking themselves because they were in a position to win it. We didn't mix up the game too well and our execution and decision making was poor."

Richards had said they had worked hard in the build-up and he was confident they would make an immediate impact. Yesterday he admitted: "We didn't perform to the standard we expected."

Almost nobody did. One of the biggest anti-climaxes was the non-appearance of the Quins stand-off Andrew Mehrtens. The former All Black, who used to do some very damaging things to England at Twickenham, withdrew with a leg injury before the start, but the thing is he had not trained all week. Adrian Jarvis, his understudy, did well enough, landing four penalties out of five, but he was never in a position to dictate a pattern or influence events outside his goal-kicking. That would have been the job of Mehrtens and the sooner he is involved the better.

Jarvis, with two excellent strikes, put Quins 6-0 up but rather spoilt the picture with a shocking drop-goal attempt that would have given a daisycutter a bad name. It went straight to Topsy Ojo, whose kick was even worse, the ball flying almost at right angles to Steve So'oialo. The Quins scrum-half chipped ahead, was taken out off the ball and the result was... nothing.

Yet referee Rose was red hot on any challenge that hinted at over the top. Delon Armitage presented Jarvis with his first penalty for a high tackle and Stuart Abbott, who made a memorable debut for Quins for the wrong reasons, got a yellow card for what Mr Rose - "You get off", he ordered Abbott - construed as a spear tackle on Paul Hodgson.

Quins were up against it but they defended well and received a bonus by winning a turnover near their own line, only to knock the ball on. The upshot was a try for Ojo.

No sooner had Abbott returned than he crashed through the middle and Juan Leguizamon was sent to the sin bin for killing the ball. Topsy-turvy. Jarvis kicked the penalty and at half-time Quins were 9-8 in front. He increased the lead by another three points before his opposite number Flutey, kicking downwind, was on target with two penalties and a drop goal, the latter from all of 10 yards after his side had been awarded a penalty close to the line.

He hit the woodwork with another penalty before Quins, kicking a penalty to the corner, drove over from the line-out, Ceri Jones getting the try although Simon Miall had dropped the ball. It went unnoticed by the referee but not by the crowd (51,960 for the doubleheader), some of whom booed when they saw the replay on the big screen.

Jarvis's simple conversion gave Quins a two-point lead but enter Flutey to mix the champagne with the Guinness for black velvet, although this was the poor man's version. "One swallow doesn't make a summer," Brian Smith, the Irish coach, said. "This was all about winning." Quite.

London Irish: D Armitage; T Ojo, D Feau'nati, M Catt(capt; B Everitt, 72), S Tagicakibau; R Flutey, P Hodgson; T Lea'aetoa (D Fitter, 54), D Coetzee (R Russell, 40), R Skuse (N Hatley, 54), B Casey, N Kennedy, K Roche, J-M Leguizamon (P Murphy, 54), O Magne (D Danaher, 76).

Harlequins: M Brown; G Harder (S Keogh, 72), H Luscombe, S Abbott, U Monye; A Jarvis, S So'oialo, C Jones, J Hayter (J Richards, 61), R Nebbett (M Ross, 72), N Spanghero (J Evans, 61), S Miall, A Vos, N Easter (W Skinner, 64), P Volley(capt).

Referee: D Rose (Warwickshire).

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