With the play-offs looming, the ‘Friday Night Lights’ encounter at The Stoop was always set to be a â€œmust-winâ€ for Harlequins against third placed Leicester Tigers.
Looking at the team sheet, the first thing that caught my eye was the fact that Tim Wigglesworth was the referee. On the back of last weekend, where he â€˜awardedâ€™ 5 yellow cards and 2 reds, I was hoping that his inability to let the game flow was long gone – but were my hopes in vain? It was time to wait and see.
Leicester went ahead within the first minute, with Toby Flood kicking a penalty. Tigers then had several bullish bursts through the Harlequins defence and one that gave way to the first try of the match. A terrifically timed off-load from Jordan Crane to Niki Goneva enabled Tigers to march ahead â€“ much to the home crowdsâ€™ dismay – as the pass looked forward.
But this didn’t dishearten the hungry Harlequins who showed spontaneity and sparkle, especially when Mike Brown looped Sam Smith to sprint into the Tigers 22. The exhilarated crowd became electric and the intensity of the London side was incredible. And when a penalty was awarded to Tigers just short of the try line, the home crowd chanted, ‘We want Barnes! We want Barnes!â€™ Was this really going to turn into another pantomime?
That aside, the Harlequinsâ€™ attacking back line looked demonstrably destructive and the visitors were beginning to look a little less invincible than initially thought.
Quins strove to create opportunities and Evans provided a grubber kick that enabled Luke Wallace to follow through and over but Manu Tuilagi made sure his hand got there first and upheld it. The ensuing scrum saw a penalty try awarded to Quins, as the Leicester scrum crumpled. Not at all a popular decision with Tigers and one that kept Ed Slater complaining to Mr Wigglesworth right up to the half time whistle. Yellow, Mr Wigglesworth?
But Quins had set out their stall; they were buffeting and burgeoning and meant business. Their zippy offloads, fancy footwork, crafty creativity, assured attacking lines and wonderful work rate was in relentless overdrive.
It was great to watch and it was set to be a whirl-wind second half if the first was anything to go by a the sides went in all square at 13-13.
Back out and the momentum of the game certainly didnâ€™t deteriorate. Quins quickly appeared convincingly in control, especially in terms of possession, and a moment of brilliance fromÂ Danny Care, provided a perfectly placed kick through and was pounced on by a tackled Mike Brown.
The question for the TMO was, did Brown ground the ball before Blaine Scully? Unfortunately not.
Tension around The Stoop intensified and the â€œ16thÂ Manâ€ turned up the volume as, ‘Come on you Quins!’ echoed around the ground. Then the crowd became further frustrated by a contentious quick tap and go by Ben Youngs, which set Jamie Gibson up for a virtually uncontested Tigersâ€™ try in the corner, all initiated by a magnificent concerted charge from Manu Tuilagi into the Quinsâ€™ 22.
An earlier infringement meant that a tap and go wasnâ€™t in order, but the try was allowed and the score became 16 – 20 with a quarter to go.
But the excitement didnâ€™t end there – then came the ‘TMO Show,’ and no game would have been complete without Mr Wigglesworth delving into his pocket. But he dealt with the fracas appropriately as a late spear-tackle from Leicesterâ€™s Pablo Matera on Dave Ward saw him sin binned and George Robson’s reckless retaliation also saw the crowd saying ‘cheerio’ with 12 minutes to go.
Leicester’s defence remained resilient in the circumstances but there was no doubt in my mind, Quins were edging closer to the line and it was Ben Botica who instigated a great try which was secured in spectacular style by none other than Englandâ€™s extraordinary international, Mike Brown. This time no TMO was needed. The Harlequins had scored – and The Stoop erupted!
Moments later, further adding to the crowdsâ€™ elation, Julian Salvi was sin binned, with six minutes to go.
Quins looked unstoppable. And they were!
The Harlequinsâ€™ fans counted down the clock and the game was done and dusted.
Man of the Match was awarded to international scrum-half Danny Care, whose tempo and charisma dictated much of Harlequinsâ€™ play and as for the broad smile on his face afterwards – well it lit up the pitch!
The â€œ16thÂ Manâ€ definitely made his voice heard and Connor O’Shea agreed:
â€œI’ve never heard The Stoop like that, it was absolutely rocking. We dominated that second half. I thought we created a huge amount. I love seeing my team play like that.â€
Quins energy, tenacity, teamwork and perseverance was tremendous â€“ they were feisty and their positivity and pro-activeness shone through.
Tigers in contrast, lacked creativity and flair â€“ and despite their formidable defence, they were lumbering and sometimes blundering, a lot of the time reacting as Harlequins set the pace and tone.
A positively pulsating match that boosts Quinsâ€™ hopes of making the top four.
For Tigers, a losing bonus point that could still be crucial.
And the question on everyone’s minds – who will be playing the semi-finals on home turf?
Full Time:Â Harlequins 24-20 Leicester Tigers
By Rhiannon Chandler-Day
To see more from Rhiannon, please check out her blog at: rhiannonsrugbyunionblog.blogspot.co.ukrhiannonsrugbyunionblog.blogspot.co.uk