NEC Harlequins started the new Zurich Premiership season with an 18-12 defeat against London Irish in the inaugural London Double Header at Twickenham. It was the Exiles first league victory over us since September 2001.
The outcome of a disappointing contest was settled three minutes from the end when Irish winger Paul Sackey raced over for a try in the left hand corner, which put his side two scores clear. Quins points came the boots of Andy Dunne and Jeremy Staunton, who kicked four penalties between them.
Irish put their first points on the board with 11 minutes on the clock; fly half Barry Everitt converting a penalty after Quins scrum half Steve So'oialo was penalised at the ruck. Everitt had the opportunity to double his sides advantage four minutes later, but remarkably he pushed his penalty attempt wide of the target from in front of the posts.
Quins performance improved in the second quarter and a superb break from Mel Deane took play five metres from the Exiles line. However, So'oialo knocked the ball on as it was being recycled and an excellent position was lost.
Five minutes before the break and a high tackle from Irish centre Mike Catt on Ugo Monye meant Quins were unable to capitalise on a three-man overlap outside the winger. Quins opted for a kick to the corner from the penalty but then failed to win the ball at the lineout, allowing Irish to clear the danger.
Three minutes into first half injury time and Dunne levelled the score after Irish were penalised for being offside, though Everitt restored the Exiles three point lead thanks to a second penalty just moments later that meant they led 6-3 at the halfway stage.
Quins made a positive start straight after the restart and a fine break from Dunne was halted by a high tackle from Everitt, who was sent to the sin-bin for the offence. Once again, Dunne kicked for the corner as opposed to going for the three points and once again, Quins turned over possession whilst driving for the line.
12 minutes into the second half and whilst still down to 14 men, Irish scored the first try of the match. A patient build-up eventually resulted in the space being created to allow centre Geoff Appleford to burrow his way over in the right hand corner. Catt took over the kicking duties and slotted the conversion from close to the touchline that put the Irish ten points clear (13-3).
Staunton replaced Dunne with 20 minutes left to play and was soon called into action with the boot as the Exiles were again guilty of straying offside. A second penalty from Quins replacement fly half cut the deficit to just four points (13-9) with seven minutes of normal time left to play.
However, any thoughts Quins had of winning the game evaporated four minutes later, as good work from the Irish forwards took play up to the Quins twenty-two. Sackey picked up the ball from the base of the ruck and then weaved his way through a number of defenders before having the pace to beat Simon Keogh to the line. Everitt saw his conversion attempt come back off the post but the Exiles were two scores in front (18-9) with time running out.
Staunton kicked a third penalty in injury time that gave Quins a bonus point, though time remained for one final attack and the chance to score a match winning try. The ball went forward deep inside Quins own half, which was immediately followed by the final whistle.
During week commencing 22nd April Harlequins will launch an innovative, new Membership Scheme which will replace the existing Season Ticket Holder Programme. Further details of the scheme will be announced in due course.