Except for the row over the future set-up of European competition, Harlequins are happy bunnies on every other front. The Premiership champions emerged from the recent international window – during which they had five players representing England – top of the league, their annual Big Game at Twickenham later this month is becoming as much a part of the festive season as Noel's Christmas Family Video Accidents, and with this win they are sailing towards only a second Heineken Cup quarter-final in 15 years.
A single point against either Biarritz or Connacht in January will guarantee that Harlequins win Pool Three, and they are well set to be one of the best-performing quartet who earn a home tie in the last eight. Given the facile nature of this seven-try victory, unbelievably there was a danger of the on-field action being less engaging than the boardroom arguments. The English clubs have struck a deal with newcomers BT Vision to broadcast the Aviva Premiership from next season, but Europe is a different story. The Premiership have signed their rights to BT for that too, from 2014 onwards but it can only be conditional, as the current Heineken Cup organisers, European Rugby Cup Ltd, have renewed with BSkyB in the UK.
Unless the English want out all together, the likeliest outcome is a rejig in distribution of the proceeds and in the numbers of teams qualifying automatically from each domestic league. Whichever way they cut it, there is an enduring problem of provinces playing alongside clubs, private concerns alongside union-backed franchises, and established outfits like Harlequins facing off against a new, developmental concern like Zebre, who are being funded for two years by the Italian Rugby Federation until they stand on their own two feet.
"Zebre get three times the amount of money coming into this tournament that we do," Conor O'Shea, Quins' director of rugby, said. "It doesn't add up. And it doesn't do Italian rugby any good to see this team getting stuffed, while there's no doubt Treviso are getting stronger. As for us, we'll happily go under the radar and see where we come up. We've won 13 of 16 games this season. Do we have the depth to win the Heineken? We have a lot of talent."
None more talented than Nick Evans, Quins' All Black fly-half who kicked a penalty before the tries began flowing. When a maul penalty was kicked to touch, Charlie Matthews (the lock picked at academy level when Quins let Joe Launchbury go to Wasps) caught the line-out at the front, and Evans dabbed a kick through for centre Tom Casson to score at the posts.
The best moment for those in Zebre black and white came in the 27th minute when Luciano Orquera, a some-time Italy fly-half, broke free and rounded Mike Brown, and the full-back Ruggero Trevisan followed up for a try. Soon enough though Quins scored again. A penalty against Andrea de Marchi for standing up in the scrum was kicked by Evans from 35 metres out, and the Zebre prop was hooked off soon afterwards in favour of the experienced Test loosehead Salvatore Perugini, a rare old bird in a squad with a dozen players born in the 1990s.
The French referee had been lecturing the Italians from the off about killing possession after the tackle, and Daniel Halangahu was the first of three Zebre players sent to the sin-bin, just before Quins had a penalty try converted by Evans after a collapsed scrum.
From 20-5 at half-time, Quins' lead quickly grew to 29 points, plus a bonus point thanks to tries by Ben Botica – on at full-back with Brown moving to his recent England position on the wing – and Nick Easter from a line-out catch-and-drive. Botica bundled past Andries van Schalkwyk, and though the Zebre No 8 had made a mess of a couple of Quins line-outs in the first half, they were fingers in an overflowing dyke. Quins' principal enemy was complacency: a lofty pass tossed by Easter that failed to reach Ugo Monye was followed by a "hey, it was worth a go" shrug from the home No 8.
The fifth try went to Smith in the 58th minute and it was only when Danny Care ran the sixth into the Stoop's North-East corner that Evans missed his first conversion. The New Zealander returned to form with the conversion of Karl Dickson's try on 75 minutes. It reinforced the commercial and sporting merit of the English wanting to reduce Europe's premier event from 24 teams to 20, but the means of doing so are the nub of the row and they may need to be careful what they wish for. An English team has not won the Heineken since Wasps in 2007. And eight of the Premiership's 10 quarter-finalists in the past five seasons came through from pools containing an Italian or Scottish team.
Harlequins M Brown (K Dickson, 61); U Monye (B Botica, 40), M Hopper (J Turner-Hall, 51), T Casson, S Smith; N Evans, D Care; M Lambert (D Marfo, 61), J Gray (R Buchanan, 58), W Collier (K Sinckler, 58), C Matthews (S Twomey, 58), G Robson, T Guest, N Easter (L Wallace, 51), C Robshaw (capt).
Zebre R Trevisan; L Sarto, S Pace (G Garcia, 40), D Halangahu, G Venditti; L Orquera, A Chillon (L Martinelli, 50); A de Marchi (S Perugini, 32), D Giazzon (A Manici, 50), L Redolfini (C Fazzari, 40), M van Veren, J Sole, N Cattina (capt, N Belardo, 60), A van Schalkwyk (F Cristiano, 52), F Ferrarini.
Referee M Raynal (France).
Tries: Casson, Botica, Easter, Smith, Care, Dickson, penalty
Cons: Evans (6)
Pens: Evans (2)
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