Harlequins stand at a three-way fork in the Heineken Cup road, with two routes leading to the quarter-finals, after a drumskin-tight match that ended with Gloucester going the same way of elimination as Bath and London Irish in other pools.
With Leicester in particular, but also Northampton, looking vulnerable, it could be a thin English presence in the last eight. Saracens look best placed to make it, but Quins can join them. They need to win in Galway against Connacht on Friday and then hope either to progress as one of the best second-placed teams or, if Pool Six leaders Toulouse lose at Gloucester, as the winners.
"We'll put out our strongest team." Gloucester's head coach, Bryan Redpath, promised last night. His Quins counterpart, Conor O'Shea, was relieved that a match featuring one considerable risk taken by the club's England captaincy candidate, Chris Robshaw, ended in the reward of victory. "It's been a tough physical period for us," O'Shea said of three defeats in six matches after the season-opening days of win after win, "but also a tough period, mentally."
If Nick Evans was fresh from a couple of weeks' rest his kicking did not show it. The fly-half missed at either end of a first half that finished with Gloucester 11-10 up. Evans equalised Freddie Burns's eighth-minute penalty when Robshaw – one of four Quins in the England training squad, to two from Gloucester – dived on Nick Wood but was unlucky that a team-mate went off his feet.
Some of Quins' running rugby was as thrilling as ever but they became panicky when they reached the Gloucester 22. Even their first try, by the centre Matt Hopper after 18 minutes, had an element of the hail mary about it. From a line-out on the right, on the Gloucester 10-metre line, there was some gorgeous ground work by Evans with a flick-on of Hopper's pass to Mike Brown, who fed Ugo Monye. The wing motored forward and though he tossed the ball inside it was fumbled by Gloucester and Hopper, with an Elvis hip-swivel, danced round Scott Lawson to the line.
Evans converted for 10-3 before Burns's second penalty for a scrum offence, then a try by Gloucester that was smoothly executed yet far too straightforward for Quins' liking. Moving left to right from a scrum, Gloucester used Mike Tindall – no longer one of those England squad men – as an obvious decoy as James Simpson-Daniel cantered the long way round off his wing on to fly-half Burns's pass and past Hopper's attempted tackle.
Burns hit a post with the conversion and when Evans missed for a third time four minutes into the second half it began to look as if Harlequins' red-letter win away to Toulouse might count for nought. But Evans rarely loses composure for long and he relocated the target for a 13-11 lead after 47 minutes.
Now we waited to see where the quality would come from. Those players in the England elite squad, the EPS? Or Gloucester's Samoan centre, Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu, otherwise known as EFS? His notorious tweets have fallen silent of late, under a three-year suspended disciplinary sentence, but his selection with Tindall confined the England prospect Henry Trinder to the bench.
It fell eventually to Brown of the EPS to see Quins home. First, Burns kicked Gloucester 14-13 up and the likeliest hero looked to be Jonny May. The visitors' full-back made a series of high-paced forays, the third of which drew Tom Williams into conceding a penalty that was missed by Burns. Then when Danny Care, the Quins and erstwhile England scrum-half who has a court date over a drink-drive offence tomorrow, broke free with a chip and chase, May raced in to deny him.
Now Quins' scrum, with Joe Marler and his blue-rinse Mohawk on from the bench, applied pressure at the resulting scrum – or scrums, as Robshaw refused what seemed an obvious kick. They reset when Gloucester conceded penalties and Wood the loosehead went to the sin-bin. Would the French referee, Pascal Gaüzère, award a penalty try? He had that taken out of his hands but looked mistaken anyway when Care, in front of his forwards but apparentlyplayed onside by a Gloucester ricochet, had his run-in for a try disallowed.
If Robshaw had any regrets they turned to ecstasy. Care's kick bounced wickedly to ricochet off Charlie Sharples, allowing Brown to shepherd it over for a try converted by Evans. With two minutes left a Gloucester scrum stood up; with a second left, Simpson-Daniel's hands failed him and their European chance was gone.
Harlequins M Brown; T Williams, M Hopper, J Turner-Hall, U Monye; N Evans, D Care; M Lambert (J Marler, 50), J Gray (C Brooker, 50), J Johnston, O Kohn, C Matthews (T Vallejos, 56), M Fa'asavalu, N Easter, C Robshaw (capt).
Gloucester J May; C Sharples, M Tindall, E Fuimaono-Sapolu, J Simpson-Daniel; F Burns, R Lawson (D Lewis, 71); N Wood, S Lawson (D Dawidiuk, 67), D Chistolini (R Harden, 49), J Hamilton, A Brown (W James, 69), A Strokosch, L Narraway (capt; M Cox, 75), A Qera (D Murphy 69-76).
Referee P Gaüzère (France)
Tries: Hopper, Brown
Cons: Evans 2
Pens: Evans 2
Pens: Burns 3