George Head gives Harlequins victory in chaotic finale against London Irish
Another trademark Harlequins comeback should not avert serious questions as to whether they ought to have been able to complete it. All credit to them for doing so through the replacement hooker, George Head, long after the clock had turned red but London Irish can feel aggrieved that they were not awarded a penalty a couple of minutes earlier that would have ended the match in their favour.
The London Irish director of rugby, Declan Kidney, bit his tongue afterwards but the frustration that the referee, Craig Maxwell-Keys, did not penalise Charlie Matthews for taking Benhard Janse van Rensburg out in the air was palpable among the Exiles. As it was, Harlequins proceeded to win a penalty from a scrum and Tommy Allan kicked to the corner. From there Matthews claimed the lineout and Head turned a three-point defeat into yet another dramatic victory for Harlequins.
Kidney said: “It was a mid-air collision interpreted as a fair contest. I would need to take a look at it. When the emotion settles you come off and everyone is talking about the last couple of plays of the game but what you have to do is look at the whole.”
It was rough justice for London Irish who impressed throughout this ill-tempered London derby, built a 14-0 lead at half-time and defended resolutely. Both sides had players sent off but Irish’s red card came nearly 20 minutes before Harlequins’, yet still the visitors were on course for a hard-earned victory through Paddy Jackson’s 71st-minute penalty until Head struck.
For Harlequins it was the first time this season they have managed back-to-back wins and they were able to welcome back Alex Dombrandt to the fold. Maybe not for long – England could well come calling soon enough – but this could still prove a significant moment in their season. They have traditionally struggled during international campaigns but it should be said that Allan performed admirably in the absence of Marcus Smith, finishing with 16 points in an excellent battle with Jackson, whose showing also caught the eye.
Harlequins were not helped at the outset by a somewhat harsh decision by Maxwell-Keys to send Josh Bassett to the sin-bin for a deliberate knock-on eight minutes into his debut. Jackson kicked to the corner and from the ensuing lineout the No 8 So’otala Fa’aso’o thundered over.
Irish were themselves reduced to 14 men when Rob Simmons was shown a yellow card for a high tackle on Nick David but that did not deter the visitors, for whom Jackson was wreaking havoc, and Ben Donnell soon crossed for their second. Donnell was then sent off four minutes into the second half and, to make matters worse for Irish, it came in the buildup to Harlequins’ first try. Donnell hit Joe Marler too high and the England prop was unmoved, offloading to Danny Care, whose no-look pass put Allan away. Maxwell-Keys determined that a red card was warranted.
The expected Harlequins procession did not immediately materialise. Instead Irish struck with a fine try, straight off the training ground, with Jackson again the ringmaster and Ollie Hassell-Collins finishing in the left corner. Dombrandt crashed over to bring Irish to within seven, however, and Allan’s second try – after a clever dummy – levelled the scores.
David’s red card, for a high tackle on Luca Morisi, then appeared to knock the wind out of Harlequins’ sails and Jackson’s penalty put Irish back ahead. Cue pandemonium and ultimately another turnaround for Harlequins in front of their jubilant supporters.
“It’s great to watch as a fan but as a coach, jeepers, it’s frustrating,” said the Harlequins coach, Tabai Matson. “This was never going to be an easy fixture and to scrape away with a win in the 84th or 85th minute is probably the most important thing.”