A 16 minute spell in the sin-bin for NEC Harlequins flank forward Chris Cracknell proved to be the turning point as Quins U21's were narrowly beaten 24-20 by London Irish U21's at Sunbury on Friday night, despite a grandstand finish where they were denied a possible winning score only by some bizarre refereeing decisions.
The sin-binning five minutes after the half-time came just as Quins were looking to capitalise on a good scoring spell before the break that saw them turn around just a point behind at 14-13, which could so easily have been 14-17 if Quins had not missed the added points on offer after tries by Kai Horstmann and Tom Williams.
Both conversion attempts were taken by different players, with Williams firing wide for Horstmann's strike, whilst scrum half Ian Martin narrowly failed to add the extras for Williams try, despite landing a penalty five minutes earlier.
Quins had started well, but the home side went ahead against the run of play when prop Matt Allen was driven over following a penalty and five metre lineout after six minutes. Delon Armitage comfortably landed the awkward conversion to put the hosts 7-0 ahead.
But after Horstmann had pulled the scores back to within two points, Quins fell further behind when a turnover in midfield allowed pacy centre Kene Ejikeme to collect a dropped pass and run it back in from just inside his own half.
Armitage again converted to make it 14-5, but missed a very kickable penalty 40 metres out a few minutes later. Williams threatened to run-in a second try minutes later after good work from Andrew Reay and his centre partner Tom Allen, but he was halted on the Exiles twenty-two, and Quins were unable to make better use of a good field position.
However, with the half coming to a close, a well-struck penalty from Martin and a superb try from Williams who ran the ball in from 70 metres after a brilliant off-load from Ugo Monye, rocked the home side, until Cracknell was involved in a scuffle with two of the opposition.
Within minutes of going off London Irish's, Ian Critchley was worked over in the far left hand corner and another catch-and-drive play gave a fourth score to Will Helmsley with only 55 minutes gone.
Fortunately neither score could be converted by Armitage, and on the hour, when still down to fourteen men, Quins hit back. Fly-half Matt Lockwood was penalized for killing the ball at a ruck under his posts that presented Quins with a penalty try, after Ollie Phillips had been tackled inches from the line.
Martin's conversion narrowed the score to 24-20, but inept refereeing and some diabolical lineout ploys prevented Quins from turning the screws, and despite a number of exciting surges that went close to the Exiles tryline Quins were unable to cross the line for that all important fourth try of their own.
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.