Two late penalties from fly half Barry Everitt gave London Irish a 32-27 victory over NEC Harlequins at the Stoop, and a place in the Powergen Cup Final. A magnificent match saw the visitors, playing with the wind in the first half, race into a 26-0 lead after only 28 minutes. Quins then staged a tremendous fight-back, scoring 27 unanswered points that gave them the lead with just over ten minutes left to play. But it was Irish who finished the stronger and Everitt kicked two penalties in the final five minutes, to end the game with a personal tally of 22 points and give Irish a place in the final at Twickenham on 20th April.
Everitt opened the scoring after five minutes of play. Paul Sackey and Chris Sheasby both made ground into Quins territory and the home side were penalised for being offside. Everitt kicked the resulting penalty to put Irish on their way. After Quins were penalised at a scrum three minutes later, the Irish fly half doubled his tally and made the score 6-0.
Such was their domination in the opening exchanges that it was no surprise when Irish scored the first try of the game after 14 minutes. A spell of persistent pressure, which saw scrum half Hentie Martens and flanker Eddie Halvey make ground, ended with centre Brendan Venter bursting through to score to the right of the posts. Everitt added the two extra points from the conversion and then kicked his third penalty of the afternoon minutes later to give the Irish a 16-point advantage.
With 22 minutes on the clock, Justin Bishop took play into the Quins twenty-two and the home side were guilty of coming in at the side of the ruck. Everitt continued his excellent form with the boot and added another three points to the Irish total. As the match approached the 30-minute mark, Irish went over for their second try. Securing possession from a scrum, the ball went right to full back Michael Horak who burst through the gap and had the pace to beat the covering defence. Everitt slotted the conversion from wide-out and made the score 26-0.
In the remaining ten minutes of the first half, Quins started their amazing comeback. Good work from Tony Diprose, Ace Tiatia, Nick Burrows and Rob Jewell took play deep into the Irish twenty-two and resulted in Quins being awarded a scrum five metres from the line. Diprose picked-up from the base of the set-piece and the packed formed a rolling maul. Alex Codling broke free and dived over for his first try of the season, which Paul Burke converted. With Irish offside in front of their own posts a minute before the break, Burke kicked his first penalty of the game and made the score 10-26 at half-time.
No sooner had the game restarted then Quins had the scoreboard moving again. Irish were guilty of being offside and Burke slotted the penalty to cut the deficit down to 13-points, 13-26, after 41 minutes. Some excellent defence from the hosts then prevented Irish from scoring their third try of the game.
After 55 minutes, Quins put themselves within six-points of their opponents. Burke turned down the opportunity for three points and kicked a penalty into the corner. Claiming possession from the lineout, the pack drove their way up to the line and Tiatia managed to get the ball down for the try. Burke converted from the right-hand touchline to make the score 20-26.
11 minutes later and Quins took the lead for the first and only time in the game. Dan Luger charged down a clearance kick from Horak and Bishop sliced his kick into touch just five-metres from his own line. Codling won the lineout and once again the pack powered their way forward. It was Diprose turn to come up with the ball and claim his sides third try of the game. Burke once again found the target with the conversion from close to the left-hand touchline, much to the delight of the home crowd as Quins now led by the narrowest of margins, 27-26.
Back came the Irish and a clever chip from Everitt forced Ben Gollings, on for the injured David Slemen, to clear giving Irish a lineout inside Quins twenty-two. With the ball going loose at the ruck, Codling picked-up but was adjudged offside by referee Steve Leyshon. Everitt opted for the kick at goal and put Irish back in front, 27-29.
Further infringements from the home side allowed Everitt to take play back into the Quins half. With three minutes of injury time played, Quins were again penalised for being offside and Everitt gave Irish a five-point cushion with his sixth penalty of the game. There was no time left for Quins to stage another comeback and the final whistle signalled an Irish victory and the end to a truly memorable match.
Irish will play Northampton Saints in the final at Twickenham, after they defeated cup holders Newcastle Falcons 38-7 in the other semi-final at Franklins Gardens.
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.