The extension of the television match official's powers being trialled this season is intended to ensure fewer dodgy tries are awarded but the winning score that took the champions Harlequins back to the top of the table 59 seconds from the end of a tense derby was so shrouded in grey that the initial reaction of the player concerned, Tom Casson, was that he had cost his side victory rather than won the match.
Casson cursed in frustration after landing on the ball stomach-first over London Irish's line after receiving an inside pass from Ugo Monye that first hit his hand and then the floor before bouncing over the line off his knee. The referee, Tim Wigglesworth, asked the TMO, Graham Hughes, to rule whether a try should be awarded and had to wait a while.
Hughes had two decisions to make: was the pass of Monye, who hurriedly got rid of the ball after a thumping tackle by Guy Armitage, forward and did Casson knock the ball forward? He looked at various camera angles before telling Wigglesworth he could award the try, a decision Harlequins celebrated and London Irish disputed.
The attacking team had been given the benefit of any doubt and the essential reason Quins won a match in which they were far from their fluent best is that, when they needed to, they could take play to a level beyond London Irish. They were behind only twice, after 12 minutes when Jamie Gibson charged down Ben Botica's in-goal clearance and Armitage dived on the ball and seven minutes from the end when Ian Humphreys' seventh penalty put the home side 28-26 ahead.
If Harlequins had been fortunate in their first response to Irish taking the lead, Anthony Watson's break from his own 22 ending with a Danny Care intercept, they showed the temperament of champions as they faced the prospect of losing their third consecutive Premiership match – not for them a drop goal to draw the match as they took play through several phases.
They dared and won. The loss of Nick Evans at outside-half has been mitigated by the emergence of Botica, another New Zealander, although one who is qualified to play for England. The 22-year-old's ability to buy time for his outside backs had been demonstrated in his side's second try, delaying his pass going right from a scrum on halfway enough for Matt Hopper to run an inside line and leave Tom Williams with room on the outside, and Botica kept probing for gaps rather than manouevring play close to the London Irish posts.
His slightly delayed pass gave Monye the room to ride Watson's tackle and the wing saw in time that Armitage was going to prevent him from reaching the line, twisting his body so that he could place the inside pass to Casson who did not want to risk the ball bouncing before trying to catch it. A couple of seasons ago Quins might have been pleased with a draw but in a league that seems to get tighter every season – three teams were at the top of the table at various times during the weekend – the ability to take four points where other sides would settle for one or two will separate the best from the rest.
If London Irish did not look like a side that was in a relegation scrap, the three tries they conceded took their total in seven league matches to 21, a total exceeded only by London Welsh. Elements of their game were impressive: the tight-head prop Halani Aulika gave the England-bound Joe Marler, who like the home centre Jonathan Joseph was sporting a distinctive hairstyle, a taxing afternoon; some of their tackling was distinctly robust, Chris Hala'uifa once felling the charging Marler with the impact of a bullet; and they have pace and invention in their three-quarter line.
What they lacked was the inner belief of their opponents to keep hold of what they had. After Botica had kicked two early penalties Armitage's try after Irish exploited a shallow in-goal area was rubbed out by Care and the rest of the half was a kicking duel between two left-footers, Humphreys and Botica, the former missing the opportunity to give his side a 19-16 lead at the interval after Mike Brown had harshly received a yellow card for a deliberate knock-on.
Irish were unable to take advantage of Brown's absence and when he returned to the field Quins were three points ahead. Williams's try after 51 minutes tested Irish's resolve but three penalties by Humphreys, supplemented by a Botica miss, took them back in front. They did not see the ball for the final five minutes and, whether Casson's try should have been awarded or not, it was no less than the attitude of the champions merited.
London Irish Watson; Ojo, Joseph (Shingler, 63), Armitage, Tagicakibau; Humphreys, O'Leary (Allinson, h-t); Lahiff (Griffiths, 78), Paice (Lawson, 68), Aulika (Haslavatau, 63), Evans, Garvey, Danaher (capt), Gibson, Hala'ufia (Treviranus, 53).
Try Armitage. Con Humphreys. Pens Humphreys 7.
Harlequins Brown; Williams, Hopper, Casson, Monye; Botica, Care; Marler, Buchanan (Ward, 48), Johnston (Collier, 67), Kohn, Robson, Guest, Easter, Robshaw (capt; Fa'asavalu, 31).
Tries Care, Williams, Casson. Cons Botica 2. Pens Botica 4.
Sin-bin Brown 38.
Referee T Wigglesworth (Hull). Attendance 10,247.
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