Only a worrying ankle injury to their guru of a fly-half Nick Evans could take the shine off this otherwise perfect burst into Europe by Harlequins. There was eye-catching individual quality but above all this was a team effort by the English champions, who kicked off one of the easier-looking Heineken Cup pools by dominating Biarritz up front after a frustrating first half had ended all-square.
The English champions bristled and scrapped, they did not suffer when the relative novice of a 23-year-old Ben Botica came on for Evans and – after half-time at least – they scrummaged the life out of visitors whose form of four straight losses in the French Top 14, and with the totemic Dimitri Yachvili and Imanol Harinordoquy out injured, were not hugely threatening.
Biarritz. Just allow the last syllable to linger and picture the sizzling surf crashing up their Atlantic coast. Or you may prefer to think of Stade Aguilera where the entirely un-surf-dude-like Basque club favours rugby played with the ball stuck up their red and white jumpers. Quins eventually beat them at their own game.
Harlequins have unveiled a variety of inventive attacking ploys off line-outs this past couple of years and they had almost made the breakthrough with one that swept quickly right to left when they scored with another of entirely different dimensions. Chris Robshaw, the captain and openside flanker, won the ball at the tail and Danny Care, his England team-mate who had an effervescent 80 minutes, bulleted through a big gap in the line for a 20-metre run to the posts. Evans duly converted.
Quins had started with 12 Englishmen, though not the injured Saxons squad hooker Joe Gray; Biarritz were hardly suffuse with Basques, with their English, American, Australian, Fijian and Welsh league of nations, and that was just the backs, from whom the Maori fly-half Mathew Berquist withdrew in the warm-up. That left the former France international Julien Peyrelongue in the box seat, and his penalty goal was followed by Evans twisting his left ankle in a tackle by a Biarritz back-rower and a yellow card to Biarritz's centre Dane Haylett-Petty.
The loss of Evans could be a major blow. "It's not a break but there's a little damage and Nick was down when he came off," reported Quins' director of rugby Conor O'Shea. "It will be weeks [out], not months." It was Evans's injured knee that was an unwitting plot device in the bloodgate saga that developed here in 2009 when Quins last reached a Heineken Cup quarter- final; the best they have done. The former All Black was replaced by a son of a former All Black: Ben Botica, progeny of Frano.
Botica kicked a penalty before Biarritz scored their first try in four matches – the hooker Arnuad Heguy peeling round a line-out and appearing to get away with re-attaching himself to a tight, driving maul. Peyrelongue converted for 10-10 and it was level at the interval after Peyrelongue whacked over a 45-metre penalty replied to by Botica hitting a post then chipping over a penalty from short distance.
With a few half-time words from forwards coach John Kingston to refocus them at the ruck, and pick better field position from which to play, Quins began to dominate. Scrum after scrum featured a multi-coloured nudge of some sort. Nick Easter, the No 8 who could not be forthright about presenting his England credentials to an apparently uninterested Stuart Lancaster, had suffered a couple of fumbles but began to enjoy himself. After 44 minutes he controlled a scrum at the base long enough for Care to attack right, Robshaw was involved and the hooker Rob Buchanan drove over for Botica to convert.
Botica made a bolt from a line-out that led to a penalty for 23-13; then he kicked another – a monster from halfway for a scrum offence – on 63 minutes, and the result if not yet the bonus point was secured with 13 minutes remaining.
Easter galloped free from a scrum in Quins' half, and Care followed up to combine with Seb Stegmann. A little more pick-and-go action ended with Joe Marler, who had epitomised Quins' intent on enforcement in a scrap with Erik Lund, giving a scoring pass to Jordan Turner-Hall.
Stegmann supplied the bonus when a penalty to touch and a short drive from George Robson's catch made a gap at the corner poorly defended by Taku Ngwenya. The conversion and the one of Turner-Hall's score before were delivered with confident swipes from Botica's left boot.
Evans is likely to miss the next European match at Connacht, on Saturday, but only Zebre in December need to be met, home and away, before Quins finish this pool, in good shape you would predict, against Connacht and Biarritz in January.
Harlequins M Brown; T Williams, M Hopper, J Turner-Hall, U Monye (S Stegmann, 61); N Evans (B Boticza, 17), D Care; J Marler (M Lambert, 76), R Buchanan, J Johnston (W Collier, 77), O Kohn, G Robson, M Fa'asavalu (T Guest, 56), N Easter, C Robshaw (capt, D Ward, 76).
Biarritz I Balshaw; T Ngwenya, D Haylett-Petty (D Traille, 64), S Burotu (C Gimenez, 54), A Brew; J Peyrelongue, Y Lesgourgues; F Barcella (W Blauuw, 59), A Heguy, F Gomez Kodela (T Synaeghel, 70), E Lund, T Dubarry, (P Taele 49), M Lund (capt), T Gray (B Guyot, 35), W Lauret.
Referee G Clancy (Ireland).
Tries: Care, Buchanan, Turner-Hall, Stegmann
Cons: Evans, Botica (3)
Pens: Botica (4)
Pens: Peyrelongue (2)
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