Venter doctors form book as Exiles spring surprise

Harlequins 21 London Irish 32
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Harlequins' annus mirabilis failed to survive the summer break. Unbeaten at home in 2001 before yesterday, the form horses fell at the first hurdle of the new season.

It was a triumphant homecoming of sorts for Brendan Venter, the former Springbok centre whose previous spell at London Irish ended in December 1999 when the club were co-tenants of The Stoop with Quins. Venter, now coach as well as player, in succession to Dick Best, was in masterly form in the midfield, and his team ably weathered Quins' only concerted spell of pressure during the third quarter.

Venter, a qualified doctor, cuts a genial figure off the field, but he had his men champing at the bit on this return to their old haunt. Quins' pre-season romps over Bedford and London Welsh had left them unprepared for Irish's early fire. The Exiles may run around with decidedly un-PC pints of stout adorning the backs of their jerseys, thanks to their sponsors, but it was Quins who were looking out of it at half-time.

Quins were hammered by the referee, Dave Pearson, in the penalty count before the interval, but they were authors of their own misfortune. Guided by Venter, and with Darren Edwards prompting intelligently from scrum-half, Irish harried their opposition into a stream of offences in the ruck and tackle. Barry Everitt, with the minimum of fuss, banged over six goals from six attempts for a 22-6 lead, including the conversion of Mike Worsley's 22nd-minute try. That score underlined Irish's impressive urgency.

Worsley charged through a gaping hole in the Quins line-out, and after the play was swept wide to the right, Venter got away from a ruck and put Worsley over at the posts.

Edwards left Newport for Irish during the close season, when the Welsh club believed Joost van der Westhuizen was on the way over from South Africa. Newport might regret letting Edwards go, and not only because Van der Westhuizen appears to be stalling on the move. There were eye-catching displays, too, from Kieran Dawson on the open side of the scrum, and Justin Bishop alongside Venter in the centre. Neither did themselves any harm in front of the watching Ireland coach, Warren Gatland, with the resumption of the Six Nations' Championship, in Scotland, only three weeks away.

Everitt's predecessor in the Irish No 10 jersey, Paul Burke, potted a couple of penalties early on for Quins, but it was in the light of the change of fortunes which accompanied the start of the second half that he really made his presence felt. Quins gave Dr Venter and company a taste of their own medicine, with Burke's grubber kicks and a pepped-up home pack inducing a flood of penalties from Irish. The teams had changed round, but referee Pearson's outstretched arm was pointing in the same direction.

With five successful kicks from seven shots at goal, Burke pulled Quins to within a point at 22-21. Just when they needed to push on to victory, however, Quins were floored by a sucker punch. Keith Wood had only just charged on to a rapturous ovation from a near-capacity crowd of around 8,000 when Irish attacked the short side of a scrum. The ball came back from a ruck, and Everitt launched a cross-kick 40 metres towards the right-hand corner. Quins' returning England wing, Dan Luger, had gone AWOL, and Jarrod Cunningham dotted down the try unopposed. Everitt converted, and the wind disappeared from Quins' sails.

They were finished off by an Everitt drop goal, and while Venter celebrated, his Harlequins counterpart, new coach John Kingston, pondered a swift return to the drawing board.

Harlequins: B Gollings; M Moore, N Burrows, N Greenstock, D Luger; P Burke, M Powell; J Leonard, T Fuga (K Wood, 65), J Dawson (A Olver, 56), G Morgan (capt), S White-Cooper (A Alesbrook, 51-55), R Winters, T Diprose, P Sanderson (B Davison, 14).

London Irish: M Horak; J Cunningham, J Bishop, B Venter, P Sackey; B Everitt, D Edwards (K Barrett, 78); M Worsley (N Hatley, 46), N Drotske (R Kirke, 46), S Halford, R Strudwick (capt), J Fahrensohn, J Cockle (E Halvey, 54), C Sheasby, K Dawson.

Referee: D Pearson (Newcastle).