A great wind of change blew through the Stoop Memorial ground, and it was Leicester who took another buffeting. It may not be the end of an era, but at the very least it was the end of a sequence in which the Tigers won the last 11 Premiership matches between these clubs.
Both sides were hungry, but for very different reasons. Quins, according to their chief executive Mark Evans, would not consider themselves immune from the spectre of relegation until they reached 38 points. For Leicester this was a test of character, following their Heineken Cup demise last week.
Nobody can remember a season in which Leicester finished empty-handed, and they wanted the points here to help them move into the top three and qualify for the Premiership semi-finals.
While Quins surpassed their target, thoroughly deserving victory by a try, three penalties and a drop goal to three penalties, Leicester again came up short. So short in fact that not only did they fail to score a try but they also missed out on a bonus point, as Paul Burke put the boot in in the last 10 minutes, turning a 9-8 deficit into a 17-9 triumph with two penalties and a drop goal.
As well as Quins played, this was not the Leicester we know and admire, if not love. It is one thing to loose to Munster, quite another to be beaten by Harlequins. The Heineken Cup has gone and their four-year hold on the Premiership is evaporating. Dean Richards, the Tigers' coach, had already embarked on a little rebuilding with not only the recall of the young Sam Vesty at stand-off in place of the re-injured Austin Healey, but also Peter Cook. No longer beyond the fringe but on centre stage, Cook, an England Under-21 international, made his senior debut here and found himself up against the Methuselah of props: Jason Leonard.
This was Quins' first home game since the death of their England scrum half Nick Duncombe, and they were also laying down some new building blocks. They fielded Billy Fulton at scrum-half, a recruit from Wellington in New Zealand who, along with centre Mel Deane and prop Ceri Jones, was making a home debut. As a gesture in Duncombe's memory, Fulton's jersey had no number. The number nine was conspicuous by his deeds, though, not the least of which was an excellent service.
In front of him, he had a wonderful back row in Andre Vos, a revitalised Tony Diprose at No 8 and the warrior-like Ace Tiatia. They were too much of a handful for a Tigers back row which was missing Neil Back.
Leicester had first use of a gale-force wind and Tim Stimpson soon kicked them into a 6-0 lead. Clearly, though, the full-back had not fully recovered from his nightmare against Munster last Sunday. Stimpson landed his first penalty in the opening minute and his second in the 15th, but in between he was dreadful.
An indication of the strength of the wind came when Martin Johnson punted the ball from his own 22 and it ran dead 90 yards later. From the resultant scrum, Quins attacked left, where Ben Gollings chipped past Geordan Murphy and, as the ball corkscrewed over the line, the race was between Gollings and Stimpson. It looked touch and go but the Quins wing was awarded the try by referee Roy Maybank, who had an excellent view. Stimpson protested furiously, as did Johnson. Although Stimpson added another penalty for a 9-5 half-time lead, the Tigers' tactics had been pretty clueless. They kicked away possession and were fortunate to stay in front when Gollings was beaten to another chip by Vesty after Will Greenwood had opened the defence.
After Quins had subjected Leicester to the indignity of a rolling maul, Burke kicked his first penalty to make it 9-8, but for the next 20 minutes they had to withstand sustained pressure. Stimpson missed a relatively easy kick before the fired up Tiatia was sent to the sin bin midway through the half. It looked as if Quins' Ace had been trumped, but predictable, jaded Leicester could not capitalise. Even when they threatened, first through Leon Lloyd on the right then Martin Corry on the left, the move broke down as Murphy spilled a pass in front of the posts. Then Josh Kronfeld limped off with a hamstring strain, and as the game entered the final quarter it was clear that Leicester were a spent force.
After Diprose had won yet another line- out Burke's penalty gave Quins the lead for the first time in the 69th minute. When Johnson conceded another penalty at a ruck Burke was on target again and two minutes later, when Vesty failed to find touch, Burke, in his element, dropped a goal. Thank you, and goodnight.
Harlequins 17 Leicester 9
Try: Gollings Pens: Stimpson 3
Pens: Burke 3
Half-time: 5-9 Attendance: 7,123
Harlequins: N Williams; D Luger, W Greenwood, M Deane (R Jewell, 87), B Gollings; P Burke, B Fulton; C Jones, T Fuga (R Winters, 71), J Leonard (J Dawson, 66), B Davison (K Rudzki, 71), S Miall, A Tiatia, T Diprose, A Vos (capt).
Leicester: T Stimpson; G Murphy, L Lloyd, R Kafer (S Booth, 58), F Tuilagi (G Gelderbloom, 85); S Vesty, H Ellis; P Cook, D West, D Garforth, M Johnson (capt), B Kay (P Short, 58), M Corry, A Balding, J Kronfeld (L Deacon, 63).
Referee: R Maybank (Kent).
- More about:
- Dean Richards
- Guinness Premiership
- Harlequin FC
- Harlequins (rugby)
- Heineken Cup
- Hull City
- Peter Cook