Nick Evans scored 16 points with the boot as defending champions Harlequins ensured they will stay of the Aviva Premiership table at the turn of the year.
Despite 15 points from Ian Humphreys in a sold out Big Game 5 at Twickenham, a Danny Care score and late penalty try mean it’s now just one win in ten games for London Irish in all competitions.
After Sale’s Friday night win against Worcester, London Irish are precariously looking over their shoulders at the foot table but their opening 40 minutes against Quins was anything other than relegation form.
In poor handling conditions, Quins struggled to reproduce their attacking form of December that has seen Conor O’Shea’s men top both the Aviva Premiership and also their Heineken Cup pool at Christmas.
New Zealander Evans, who had scored 67 points for Quins in his previous four visits to Twickenham, opened the scoring after just six minutes with the boot after London Irish flanker Declan Danaher had been penalised for breaking his bind at scrum-time.
Despite several passages of play, Quins were unable to extend their lead as the boots of Evans and London Irish No.10 Humphreys dominated proceedings in the wet conditions.
Humphreys, who scored seven penalties in the Exiles’ narrow 31-28 loss against Quins in October, levelled proceedings with a penalty on 12 minutes as England skipper Chris Robshaw was penalised for not rolling away.
Quins had the edge in the set-piece and the pressure exerted by props Joe Marler and James Johnston on 22 minutes led to London Irish being penalised in front of their posts and Evans adding the three points to edge the defending champions 6-3 ahead.
Straight from the restart it was all square though as Tom Williams collected the ball and took it into contact and Quins flanker Maurie Fa’asavalu was penalised on the floor trying to retrieve it – Humphreys added the points to make it 6-6.
Quins will wonder how they went into the break all square as first Evans, who had scored 54 points in his three previous games against London Irish, missed a straight-forward penalty on 30 minutes.
And then the mercurial All Black wasted a gilt-edged opportunity to send Ugo Monye over for a walk-in try as he knocked-on in sight of the line just minutes later.
For all of their dominance, the final shots at goal came from Humphreys – he missed with two long range efforts though in the final four minutes, while Evans again fluffed his lines with the final strike of the half.
Evans nudged Quins 9-6 ahead just three minutes into the second half as Irish failed to deal with a lively multi-phase start from the home side, while indiscipline from lock Olly Kohn on 48 minutes allowed Humphreys to level with a penalty of his own for the Exiles.
Humphreys was fortunate not to be sinbinned on 50 minutes as he appeared to deliberately palm the ball into touch as Quins flyer Monye passed inside to his supporting runners’ just metres short of the line.
Quins’ pressure eventually told just minutes later as England number nine Danny Care burrowed over from close range after Evans was initially held up just metres short – the New Zealander added the extras.
With 24 minutes to play Humphreys reduced the arrears to just four points as he landed a long-range penalty but straight from the restart Evans extended Quins lead to 19-12 with a penalty of his own.
For all of their possession and territory, needless errors at the breakdown meant Irish stayed within touching distance as Humphreys landed his fifth penalty for the Exiles with 17 minutes to play.
Exiles debutant Pat Phibbs was yellow carded for slapping the ball out of Care’s hands just metres from the line late on and Irish paid the ultimate penalty.
Two reset scrums saw a penalty try awarded for Harlequins against the visitors and left London Irish without a losing bonus point – Evans added the extras.