There was more bad injury news for England as Harlequins’ doomed attempt to maintain an interest in this season’s Heineken Cup after losing their opening two matches finally bit the dust.
England already knew they would be missing eight front-line players for the start of the Six Nations’ Championship in France on 1 February when Quins’ scrum-half Danny Care hobbled off with a twisted ankle in the second half.
Care, who was one of four No 9s in the England squad of 35 players named in midweek, was wearing a protective boot last night, and his director of rugby, Conor O’Shea, said he was unlikely to be fit for the concluding Heineken pool match away to the Scarlets next Sunday, when a win might earn Quins the consolation prize of a place as one of three group runners-up who drop into the Amlin Challenge Cup. Mathematically, they are not yet out of the Heineken, but it is only a matter of time before other results finish them off.
Care’s wondrous back-handed pass to make a try for Matt Hopper had given Quins hope as they led 13-3 at the interval. But in a scoreless second half for the home team Napolioni Nalaga and Sitiveni Sivivatu added The Stoop to the long list of their killing fields.
Neither of the Clermont Auvergne wings would earn many style points for sylph-like grace – they carry themselves like ocean liners in rugby boots – but they have few peers as finishers anywhere in Europe. For Sivivatu there is the added incentive of improving on last year’s losing Heineken final before he moves to Castres in the summer.
Harlequins may reflect that to be beaten by a combined 10 points over two pool matches against the leaders of the Top 14 is not too dusty. Nick Kennedy, the former England lock who won the Heineken with Toulon last May, made his first Quins start after a knee injury and will add vital nous to their Premiership run-in, challenging for the play-offs – and then what? “I hope that we will have a tournament like this [the Heineken] that we can play in next year,” said O’Shea.
Clermont were robbed of plenty of possession after the tackle, but just enough of the key incidents went their way, including a dollop of bad luck that engulfed Quins’ England full-back Mike Brown as the Massif Central men guaranteed themselves a quarter-final place even before they host Racing Métro next week.
Brock James kicked a penalty for Clermont before a double turnover led to Quins’ try on 22 minutes. Care acted quickly with a tap-and-go and long pass to Ugo Monye that was fed on to Chris Robshaw, who put in a speculative chip hard by the left touchline. It was rewarded by Care’s right-handed flick behind his back – the ball was over the line, but Care’s standing foot was not – and Hopper did the easy bit of scoring.
Nick Evans added the conversion, followed by penalties in the 30th and 38th minutes, although Clermont looked hard done by in the second of them when Evans’s break appeared to end in the fly-half getting away with losing the ball forward.
Soon enough, though, Clermont got the rub of the green. Brown was flummoxed by a wicked bounce, and the predatory Nalaga pounced for his tournament-leading fifth Heineken try of the season five minutes into the second half.
When Ti’i Paulo dived over a ruck to concede a silly penalty in the 69th minute, Evans had a kick from 35 metres out, head on to the posts, that might have given Harlequins both the win and a crucial advantage over Clermont over their two meetings. But it faded wide, and two minutes later Sivivatu’s try brought the teams level. Alexandre Lapandry caught a line-out, Nalaga and Gerhard Vosloo battered through the midfield, and Sivivatu was on the end of slick passing between James, Wesley Fofana and Jean-Marcel Buttin.
Robshaw will be reappointed publicly as England captain next Friday, and the national team’s head coach, Stuart Lancaster, praised the flanker three days ago, saying: “Chris improved in the autumn in the areas we’d asked him to: his speed over the floor and his decision-making at the breakdown – not going into every breakdown, trying to turn the ball over and losing himself.” The Quins blindside Luke Wallace will start for the Saxons against Ireland A on Saturday week.
Viewed in isolation, Robshaw’s tactics yesterday of Quins running from deep were dubious, but that is their way, even if Clermont conspicuously played for territory after half-time. Quins conceded a penalty kicked by James on 76 minutes, and though a last-ditch flurry of activity in the Clermont 22 was exciting – Dave Ward threw not straight to Nick Easter to waste a great line-out position, before Quins nicked the resulting scrum against the head – the scoreline stayed unchanged.
Harlequins: M Brown; C Walker (O Lindsay-Hague, 47), M Hopper, T Molenaar, U Monye; N Evans, D Care (K Dickson, 50); J Marler, D Ward, W Collier, N Kennedy (C Matthews, 56), G Robson, L Wallace (T Guest, 62), C Robshaw (capt), N Easter.
Clermont Auvergne: J-M Buttin; S Sivivatu, A Rougerie (capt; B Stanley, 67), W Fofona, N Nalaga; B James, M Parra; T Domingo (V Debaty, 58), B Kayser (T Paulo, 56), D Zirakashvili, J Cudmore, N Hines, J Bardy (G Vosloo, 24), A Lapandry, F Lee.
Referee: John Lacey (Ireland).