Bold Quins aim for maximum capacity

Harlequins 26 Leicester 26
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The Independent Online

Harlequins will look to fill HQ for The Big Game Mark II

There was nothing new in the Twickenham scoreline: England and the All Blacks split 52 points down the middle as long ago as 1997. (These days, the national team tend to settle for a much smaller proportion of the spoil, but that's another story). There was nothing new about the pre-match fireworks, either, except that Harlequins discovered a way of launching them into the gloaming without enveloping the stadium in acrid smoke, thereby allowing the paying public to see the action without the aid of special forces' combat goggles.

It was also entirely predictable that players would concede penalties by the gross at the breakdown - the whistle sonata in one movement lasting 80 minutes is the logical and inevitable consequence of the outlawing of boots on bodies - and that a few Leicester hard-heads, Martin Corry and George Chuter in this case, would suffer failures on the sense of humour front if things were still tight at the last knockings. When Dave Pearson, who refereed accurately in increasingly testing circumstances, finally brought proceedings to a close, the general stroppiness continued unabated for a good 90 seconds.

Yet Quins broke fresh ground in all sorts of ways by switching their Christmas fixture from one side of the A316 to the other. They broke their attendance record for a home game, sold out a match more quickly than at any time in their 142-year history and smashed the previous best for a regular-season Premiership match by something more than double. Unsurprisingly, they plan to do it again. This year: 50,000. Next year? Try 82,000 for size.

“Oh to hell with it: let's say 'yes, we can fill the place',” pronounced Mark Evans, their chief executive. And what if the visitors happen to be less of a rock-star outfit than Leicester? “I don't think it matters who we play,” he replied. “It's not as if we were killed in the rush by Leicester supporters snapping up tickets for this one. They had four months to buy them, but there were only a couple of thousand here.” Fair enough. But what if next season's fixture list has Harlequins away at Christmas? “Premier Rugby would be absolutely bonkers not to give us a home game,” Evans responded. “What would that do for the sport?”

The fact is, Quins could have sold the best part of 65,000 tickets but for the licence restrictions imposed by the authorities. “We sold out a week early, tickets were being touted in the car park and flogged for £100 on Ebay,” the chief executive continued. “I'm wondering now how many we might have pulled in. Sales for something like this tend to push five figures in the last week, and then there's the walk-up on the day. I think it's possible we'll fill the stadium next season. We'll definitely try. We have a three-year deal with the Rugby Football Union, so there will definitely be a 'big game' in 2009, and another in 2010.”

Not that he is getting too far ahead of himself. There is unlikely to be a “big game” of the European variety in April, even though Harlequins are well-placed for a home quarter-final in the Heineken Cup. If such a fixture comes to pass, it will almost certainly be placed at the Stoop (capacity 12, 638). “We don't want to over-egg it,” Evans explained. “The Twickenham thing is about staging an event, not just jacking a game across the road to make ourselves a few quid.” Besides, Dean Richard, the director of rugby, is adamantly against another shift of venue. And Richards is bigger than Evans, by some considerable distance.

Quins will have to play a good deal better than this - or rather, play well for longer - if they are to challenge for a trophy this term. It said something for their esprit de corps that they found a way back from 23-9 down against opponents as ruthless as these, but league rugby and knock-out rugby are two different things. They conceded supersoft tries either side of the interval, the first to Johne (correct) Murphy when Ugo Monye failed to complete a basic tidy-up on the floor, and the second to the impressive Tom Croft, who jogged clear from Murphy's pass after the short-side defence went missing at a line-out. The longer the season goes on, the more damaging such errors will become.

By way of contrast, Leicester made their hosts sweat blood for the tries that squared the argument. Mike Brown, a hooker in full-back's clothing if his talent for stand-up argument is anything to go by, finally found his way across the Midlanders' line just shy of the hour, while Monye, understandably keen to make amends, ended a long spell of pressure at the death by clinging to an unexpectedly early pass from Nick Evans and beating Tom Varndell on the outside en route to the left corner. On both occasion, Evans was left with a devilishly difficult conversion; on both occasions, he was bang on the money. Should we have been surprised? Probably not. The man is an absolute diamond.

Heyneke Meyer, the Leicester coach, was not wildly amused by the manner of Quins' equalising score, and rightly so: Julien Dupuy, the scrum-half recruit from Biarritz, undermined his own excellent contribution by kicking loosely and presenting the home side with the broken-field situation they craved. “It wasn't very smart,” the South African muttered, through gritted teeth.

But in the utilitarian sense, it was very smart indeed. Had Leicester won by a country mile, as they had in the corresponding fixture last season, how many of Harlequins' new admirers would have left the stadium promising themselves they'd be back? If you listen carefully, you can hear the great and good of the Premiership whispering: “Merci, Monsieur Dupuy. Merci beaucoup.”

Scorers: Harlequins - Tries: Brown, Monye. Conversions: Evans 2. Penalties: Evans 4. Leicester - Tries: Murphy, Croft. Conversions: Flood 2. Penalties: Flood 4.

Harlequins: M Brown; T Williams, D Barry, J Turner-Hall, U Monye; N Evans, D Care; C Jones, T Fuga (C Brooker 50), M Ross, J Percival (J Evans 66), G Robson, C Robshaw (T Guest 74), W Skinner (capt), N Easter.

Leicester: S Hamilton (T Varndell 43); M Smith, D Hipkiss, A Mauger, J Murphy; T Flood, J Dupuy; B Stankovich (M Castrogiovanni 52-61), B Kayser (G Chuter 60), J White (Castrogiovanni 67), M Corry (capt), M Wentzel, T Croft, L Moody (B Herring 5-13), Chuter 34-38), J Crane (C Newby 68).

Referee: D Pearson (Northumberland).