This was London Irish’s second win of the season, but you would never have known it. To claim it at the home of their local rivals, the champions of England, will have gratified still further. A game in which both sides tried to outdo each other on the missed-opportunity front ended in a win for the side less profligate. Irish started among four sides level on 17 points, from which deadlock they now emerge to nestle in behind the top six in the customarily tight mid-table. Quins remain second, but their old obsession with extravagance haunted them on a bitterly cold day that could have favoured something more prosaic.
This was not quite the exhilarating affair we might have expected from last season’s kings of the comeback against this season’s, but Irish did recover from a half-time deficit, so their status on that front remains intact. Most of their fightbacks this season have ended in draws, three of them to be precise, hence that place in mid-table with only two wins. “It was an emotional game for us,” said Les Kiss, the Exiles’ head coach. “To get away from a draw is very welcome.”
Two tries midway through the second half were the obvious clinchers of victory, but Irish will also cherish the 10 points they took from the first, which was spent mostly in worthy defence with that cold wind in their faces. The clash of the South African inside centres, André Esterhuizen in the home corner, Benhard Janse van Rensburg in the away, was as eye-watering as one might expect.
Quins were without their three England internationals, with Marcus Smith and Alex Dombrandt voluntarily rested and Joe Marchant as a precaution. Smith’s understudy, the admirable Tommy Allan, was then lost just before the break to a shoulder injury. By then Quins had set out their stall, and it was a familiar tale. They were awarded only three penalties in the first half, but two of them were kickable; both were sent to the corner – for no return.
When they did open the try-scoring, it was from open play, Danny Care teasing Irish with a chip behind. Kyle Rowe missed the bobbling ball, and Oscar Beard scooped up to score. Irish were not afraid of sending penalties to the corner either. A try for Agustín Creevy from one such driven lineout reestablished the visitors’ lead, after Paddy Jackson’s early penalty, which ultimately proved the difference between the sides.
But Quins struck on the approach to half-time. Jack Walker and Luke Northmore picked fantastic lines, and the latter finished to establish the home team’s 14-10 lead at the break. They will feel, given the disparity in penalties against them, that they were good for at least that, but rugby places such a premium on efficiency. Irish, who had barely threatened, were still in the game. Then they pounced suddenly and out of the blue.
Tom Parton is tipped by many for England. His break down the right had Quins turning this way and that. Curtis Rona’s flat pass put Rob Simmons over in the corner. Five minutes later and Irish sent another penalty to the corner, Quins style. They scored from it again, Ben White darting through the bodies to put Irish more than a score ahead as the game entered the final quarter.
Quins made their next penalty to the corner tell. Another punishing carry by Esterhuizen, and Tom Lawday sucked in two defenders to send Beard away for his second. Now it was Irish who were starting to miss their chances. Parton’s break earlier had featured a missed man outside him. They scored that time anyway, but Ollie Hassell-Collins was guilty of the same crime twice as the game entered its edgy endgame, with no points accruing.
It nearly cost the Exiles. Quins were awarded one last scrum, deep in their own 22, from which they sent Huw Jones haring away. But by now the bitter wind was whipping a cold drizzle into their faces. The move broke down, and Rona won the game’s last penalty over the ball.
Only Irish’s second win, but their first came at the home of Exeter – and now this in the lair of Exeter’s successors as champions of England. They may not be contenders themselves, but London Irish are typical of so many teams in this league. No easy games, as they say.