The backdrop was remarkable and possibly of great significance for the future of Harlequins and club rugby in and around the capital, but the more tangible excitement on this national stage belonged to another late show orchestrated by the multi-coloured ones' cool head of a fly-half. Nick Evans had drop-kicked Quins to a celebrated win over Stade Français at their own Stoop ground a fortnight before; here, across the road at a rented-out Twickenham in front of a record crowd for a regular-season Premiership match, Evans converted a try with the last kick to salvage a draw.
Evans was an All Black until he signed for Quins last summer and his first HQ experience was to injure his knee during his debut in the double-header on the opening day of the season. His return was a lot more joyful, in the end at least, after Leicester led by 23-9 and then by 10 points with nine minutes to play. The Tigers had won the previous 11 meetings with Harlequins, but been defeated on their last three trips to Twickenham (a painful trio of finals in the Heineken Cup, EDF Energy Cup and Guinness Premiership). Given all that, and the fact that only 10 points cover the top seven places in the Premiership now, with Leicester fifth and Quins sixth, maybe a draw was predictable. Yeah, right.
By contrast with Evans, who took a while to get into his stride, the Tigers' England No 10, Toby Flood, looked good to begin with only to endure some horrendous moments late on.
"I'd probably accept the draw though we played better rugby than Leicester," said Dean Richards, Quins' director of rugby. "We had belief in ourselves and we're a young side getting stronger in character day by day."
Richards, a Tigers No 8 of old, had watched his successors in the respective back rows almost strangle the match which was dubbed the "Big Game" and drew 50,000 fans with cut-price tickets at £5 and £10 to more than double London Irish's record of 23,709, set against Wasps last season.
Every scrap of possession after the tackle was fiercely contested and it took only 16 minutes before the referee, Dave Pearson, pleaded with the captains to free up the ball on the ground. Soon enough Leicester's hooker, Benjamin Kayser, went to the sin-bin, followed in short order by Quins' skipper, the openside flanker Will Skinner. It was level on the scoreboard, too, after 39 minutes when Flood's third penalty went over to match Evans's three for Quins.
Then, just before the interval, the Tigers made a try out of nothing. The ball squirted out of a ruck on halfway and Julien Dupuy hacked it into Harlequins territory. Ugo Monye, retreating, managed only to knee it towards the goalline and the chasing Leicester left wing, Johne Murphy, scored easily. Flood's conversion put the Tigers 16-9 up.
Quins have signed up with the Rugby Football Union for two more of these occasions, in 2009 and 2010, and will aim for a complete 82,000 sell-out on Boxing Day next time. Yesterday's capacity was forced by local railway closures but Quins are on a fast track to destination unknown. They could have sold 60,000 tickets, according to Mark Evans, the chief executive, who said they had no idea when arranging the fixture that there was no competing football programme.
Before fly-half Evans's closing heroics, Quins' sharpest attacking weapon was the centre Jordan Turner-Hall, a crash-ball merchant with plenty of knobs on. Otherwise there was no pattern to speak of. Chris Robshaw – like Turner-Hall, a fringe England fringe candidate – bustled and bundled on Quins' flank and Julian White had fun in the scrum for Leicester. Quins had ups and downs at the line-out, nicking a couple from the Tigers but suffering when their own hooker, Tani Fuga, threw in eccentrically.
The scrappiness worked in Leicester's favour again in the 50th minute. They tapped a line-out beyond Dupuy but he turned and pop-passed to the lively Murphy, who raced into an empty five-metre channel along the left touchline. The Irishman drew Quins' Tom Williams on the 22 and fed Tom Croft a scoring inside pass.
Flood converted but he was culpable in Quins' first try, after 57 minutes. Nick Easter rumbled forward from a penalty and when Danny Care passed to Mike Brown the full-back forced through what looked at first like an effective tackle by Flood. The splendid touchline conversion by Evans was the cue for Flood to miss a 45-metre penalty and chuck an excruciating forward pass from the restart before he kicked a penalty for Easter's clumsy line-out barge; Leicester led 26-16.
Evans kicked his fourth penalty – he and Flood missed three times in 15 attempts between them – then a trademark dart by Care in the 78th minute drew Lewis Moody into a sin-bin offence. The Tigers cleared but they allowed Quins one more attack, and Williams and Evans did it brilliantly with the New Zealander scything diagonally before Monye handed off Tom Varndell and scored at the left corner. While Monye and others exulted, Evans stayed calm, collecting himself for the equalising conversion which flew straight and true.
Harlequins: M Brown; T Williams, DW Barry, J Turner-Hall, U Monye; N Evans, D Care; C Jones, T Fuga, M Ross, J Percival (J Evans, 65), G Robson, C Robshaw (T Guest, 72), N Easter, W Skinner.
Leicester: S Hamilton (T Varndell, 43); M Smith, D Hipkiss, A Mauger, J Murphy; T Flood, J Dupuy; B Stankovich (M Castrogiovanni, 51-60), B Kayser (G Chuter, 60), J White (Castrogiovanni, 66), M Corry (capt), M Wentzel, T Croft, J Crane (C Newby, 66), L Moody (B Herring, 5-11; Chuter 30-34).
Referee: D Pearson (Northumberland).