When opportunity knocked for Sale to emphasise their candidacy for a top-four finish, and to show a London crowd how their decent form of the second half of last season had continued into this, they blew it. Harlequins found greater motivation somewhere deep in the hurt locker of a club best by injuries and depleted yet further yesterday by three England players – Chris Robshaw, Mike Brown and Joe Marler – being rested in advance of next week’s match against Australia at Twickenham.
The 2012 champions had lost all three of their previous home matches but scored two tries in the second half through two of Robshaw’s younger back-row brethren, Luke Wallace and Jack Clifford, and gradually subjugated a Sharks team who brought a strong scrum but little else that was remotely incisive.
A reasonable expectation was that Sale’s dynamic duo of flankers, Dan Braid and Dave Seymour, would create merry hell with a Quins side missing four forwards and three backs in addition to their England men. Harlequins had not exactly been hanging their heads in shame after the previous home setbacks to the well-fancied Northampton and Saracens in the league, but the one to Scarlets a fortnight ago cut deeper. Perhaps the crucial boost was going to Clermont Auvergne seven days ago and wresting a bonus point from the French galacticos.
Harlequins began here with adventure and vigour, intent on playing their way out of adversity, true to the ethos which made them the title winners. Awarded an early penalty, Quins eschewed the kick at goal and went for the line-out instead, almost earning a try when Nick Easter, playing in the second row while Nick Kennedy and Charlie Matthews regain fitness, was held up by Sale’s scrum-half Dwayne Peel.
By the 25-minute mark the score was 3-3, after a penalty each to Ben Botica and Sale’s Danny Cipriani. For Quins, their regular kicker Nick Evans was hobbling and their No 8 Tom Guest was soon to go off with a suspected ‘stinger’ that required a precautionary visit to hospital.
Cipriani had in front of him a scrummage that was giving Quins a hard time. The lad who dazzled for England in these environs once upon a few years ago certainly did not toss this promising position away. If anything, Sale’s battle plan was too conservative, as Cipriani went through the phases with lateral passes along a spread-out line of attackers – using centres, props, second rows, whoever – and then kicking for position when it all petered out. His kicking was good but Quins were not in the mood to be cowed.
Best known for captaining England to the World Under-20 Championship title in France during the summer, Clifford had been recalled from a loan spell at his dual-registered club Ealing Trailfinders in the second division to sit on the bench. Guest’s injury after 34 minutes ushered the 20-year-old into action earlier than expected. “That’s the back row we think might be playing week on, week in three or four years’ time, not now,” said Conor O’Shea, the Harlequins director of rugby. “It’s not that there is not long to go this season. We’ll stay in the fight and we’ll get stronger.”
With two more penalties by Botica before the interval, Harlequins felt emboldened not to abandon their élan. A scrum on their 22-metre line was a difficult situation and they had only just brought on Danny Care as replacement scrum-half. Care may not have been in the best of moods after being released by England, who appear to have earmarked Lee Dickson and Ben Youngs to face the Wallabies. But Quins did just enough to hold a Sale shove, and Care and company launched a devastating counter-attack that culminated in Wallace’s try at the left corner. Evans, Botica and Tom Williams gave the pacy impetus and good hands and a lovely cross-kick by Evans did the rest. Wallace was name-checked by England coach Stuart Lancaster for his strong showing against Clermont; the implication being that the lavishly-hairstyled Quin along with Matt Kvesic of Gloucester and Saracens’ Will Fraser were the readiest alternatives to Robshaw as the national team’s No 7.
Cracking on with the task in hand, Wallace was illegally bumped off from chasing a loose ball by Mark Cueto at the cost of a penalty kicked by Botica for 17-3. An overthrown Harlequins line-out gave Braid, Seymour and Cueto a rare Sale break but it came to nothing, and elsewhere the home hooker Dave Ward had every reason to be delighted on a rare start in the mulitcolours. It was then Clifford’s turn to transfer his rangy running from June’s Under-20 fun in Nantes to the senior stage. Charging down Joe Ford somewhere near halfway he re-gathered for a joyous 30-metre gallop to the posts, with Botica adding the conversion.
Harlequins: T Williams (P Sackey, 50); U Monye, M Hopper (C Walker, 70), B Botica, S Smith; N Evans, K Dickson (D Care, 46); M Lambert (D Marfo, 69), D Ward (H Allen, 79), W Collier (K Sinckler, 64), N Easter (capt; G Merrick, 75), G Robson, J Trayfoot (Merrick, 36-40), L Wallace, T Guest (J Clifford, 34).
Sale Sharks: R Miller (A Forsyth, 50-58); T Arscott, J Leota, S Tuitupou, M Cueto; D Cipriani (J Ford, 55), D Peel (W Cliff, 40); E Lewis-Roberts (R Harrison, 55), T Taylor (M Jones, 55), H Thomas (V Cobilas, 55), J Mills, A Ostrikov (T Holmes 64), D Braid (capt), D Seymour, M Easter (K Kulemin, 50).
Referee: L Pearce (London).