When George Ford’s 50-metre attempt to drop a goal to save Bath’s Premiership season fell well short in the dying seconds, it was the last of many acts of raw hope over decisive execution in this predictably fraught quasi-quarter-final.
Your heart went out to Ford, who immediately received a sympathetic word in the ear from his team-mate Gavin Henson and the sporting handshakes of umpteen Harlequins, but it was the multi-coloured ones whose narrow victory moved them above Bath into a fourth-placed finish in the Premiership and into the remaining free berth in next weekend’s play-off semi-finals by dint of winning 15 matches to Bath’s 14, with the teams otherwise level in the table on 67 points.
So Quins’ season of playing catch-up after a poor start has come to a well-timed crescendo, though they will be heavy underdogs on the short trip to Saracens next Saturday. The fading of Bath came mainly in home matches of late, rather than on the road, and with the injured Rob Webber, Ross Batty Matt Garvey and Francois Louw absent from their pack, they failed to find the draw or win here they needed to go through.
Ford’s time and that of a burgeoning young team may more naturally come next season. Bath’s hopes of a capital trifecta in mind – deal with Quins here and beat Saracens in Hendon to reach the final at Twickenham on 31 May, fell at the first. Instead Harlequins, the 2012 Premiership champions, retain a chance of regaining the title.
The result rested on a flurry of debatable decisions from the 66th to the 69th minutes: Nick Easter’s tug on Bath’s Leroy Houston was picked up on a TV replay, but a possible Bath try was ruled out for a barely visible knock-on; Dave Attwood blocked a Quins runner on the restart, Jordan Turner-Hall did the same to Bath, and it was the visitors who looked much harder done by.
The upshot was two penalty goals by Ford either side of one by Nick Evans that pegged Quins’ lead to three points and generated a fascinating tactical battle within the war. Could Quins simply keep hold of the ball? ‘Course not. Could Bath go 100 metres to score a try – twice Harlequins’ deep kicks gave them the chance to try – or to find the three equalising points? Sadly not. Bath had made many line-breaks already with the reward of just one try by Ford in the first half.
“It was tense, it was horrible,” said Conor O’Shea, Harlequins’ director of rugby, but ultimately his team did as he had promised in March they could, winning their last five league matches since they rested three of their England internationals Chris Robshaw, Danny Care and Mike Brown in a loss to Saracens at Wembley. “We weren’t far off that day and I came away confident we can do it [against Saracens] if the chance came again,” said O’Shea. “The blueprint is certainly there.”
Robshaw’s bloodhound obduracy rose above two teams prone to be slapdash in defence and conversely handle too conservatively in attack. Ford was prominent, as befits a newly capped England No.10, mixing his kicking and running and never lacking in gumption. His slashing try in the 23rd minute came from a rumble by Houston from the base of a Bath scrum with support from Carl Fearns, a flanker so large he might generate his own gravitational pull.
Quins’ midfield were sucked in, leaving Ford to sprint 30 metres to the posts, shrugging off Brown and Ugo Monye as he went. At inside centre Ollie Devoto was just as sprightly, puncturing Quins, but at the ages of 20 and 21 respectively he and Ford were terribly callow to be piloting such a pressurised ship.
Ford’s conversion of his try made the score 7-7 after Brown had scored the ninth club try of the full-back’s marvellous season, finishing a long pass by Care past Anthony Watson after Quins had initially been tackled backwards from a line-out.
Evans converted, then missed a simple penalty on 31 minutes before he made it 10-7 at half-time when Ford, chasing a Quins punt towards his posts, decided against the difficult clearing kick and tried an offload out of a tackle. All it did was put Devoto in trouble and the resulting penalty for holding on was easy for Evans to slot.
A penalty by Ford answered by two from Evans kept it all edgy in the third quarter, with Bath’s Matt Banahan sent to the sin-bin for a clumsy in-at-the-side. George Robson stole a crucial line-out from Bath, who have not won at the Stoop in the league in almost 10 years. “I’ve never been as disappointed in my life,” said Mike Ford, O’Shea’s Bath counterpart and George’s father. “To miss out after all the effort the boys have put in over 48 weeks makes no sense. But I don’t want any sympathy here. We should have done it.”
So the rugby hotbed of England’s south-west has drawn another blank. With Northampton due to host Leicester in the other semi-final on Friday night, it’s London versus the East Midlands for the title again.
Harlequins: M Brown; T Williams, T Molenaar, J Turner-Hall, U Monye (S Smith, 48); N Evans (B Botica, 76), D Care; J Marler, D Ward, K Sinckler (W Collier, 77), C Matthews, G Robson (N Kennedy, 77), M Fa’asavalu (T Guest, 53), C Robshaw (capt), N Easter.
Bath: N Abendanon (S Rokoduguni, 48); A Watson, J Joseph (G Henson, 76), O Devoto, M Banahan; G Ford, M Young (P Stringer, 22-27); P James, E Guinazu (T Dunn, 13-25, 36), D Wilson (A Perenise, 53), S Hooper (capt, D Day, 62), D Attwood, C Fearns, G Mercer (A Fa’osiliva, 58),
Referee: W Barnes.