The Parma-based Zebre refer to themselves as "la franchigia federale" – the Federal franchise – by dint of their two-year financial underpinning from the Italian Rugby Union – but a couple of other Fs sprang to mind after Saturday's 53-5 rout by seven tries to one: flaky and failing. Stuffed zebra was on the Harlequins menu and the natural reaction amid the current debate over European competition was to question why Italy should be entitled two automatic qualifiers for the Heineken Cup.
Fabio Ongaro, the one-time Saracens and Italy hooker who is Zebre's team manager, said he had heard France's clubs are happy for two Italian teams to continue, but he acknowledged the format in Europe after 2014 would be decided in boardroom battles beyond this former front-rower's influence. Zebre have lost all their 14 matches – four in Europe and 10 in the RaboDirect Pro12 – this season, which is their first as successors to the defunct Aironi.
In common with the Scots and the Welsh, Italy have tried various combinations of clubs and regions in search of the best method of mustering their players below the national team since the Heineken Cup began in 1995. The French and the English have never varied from entering their existing clubs, while Ireland's provinces have risen from quiet obscurity to prosper in Europe. A fundamental problem in settling on a format is how to cater for each country's differing needs.
Harlequins can happily leave the arguing to the suits and concentrate on the Premiership – they are top and have Northampton away and London Irish in their "Big Game" at Twickenham to come this month – and the Heineken, in which they have done no better than losing quarter-finalists. A point against Connacht and Biarritz next month will win Pool Three, but the target comfortably within reach is to earn a home quarter-final in April.
"We're looking at two very big games left in the pool in which we've got to be on our best form," said George Robson, the Harlequins lock who was a fringe candidate for Test duty in the autumn when his club-mates Chris Robshaw, Mike Brown, Danny Care, Joe Marler and Ugo Monye represented England. "If you start dropping momentum, you're going to get exposed in the knockout stages."
The predictable weakness of Zebre, against whom Quins won 57-14 in Italy the previous week, allowed Harlequins to rest several players. "We've got good academy players coming through who all know how we want to play the game and it was a good time to give them cup experience," Robson said. So Zebre were good for something then.
Many an Italian team has been refereed in naughty-schoolboy fashion, and France's Mathieu Raynal was on Zebre's case inside the first five minutes, hectoring and lecturing and sending three players – Daniel Halangahu, Gonzalo Garcia and Filippo Ferrarini – to the sin bin. A dab of Nick Evans's boot through the defensive line made Quins' opening try for Tom Casson, and among those that followed were a scrummaging penalty try and a rather too easy series of strikes from the first phase.
Harlequins: Tries Casson, penalty, Botica, Easter, Smith, Care, Dickson; Conversions Evans 6; Penalties Evans 2. Zebre : Try Trevisan.
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, C Robshaw (capt), N Easter (L Wallace, 51).
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), F Ferrarini, A van Schalkwyk (F Cristiano, 52).
Referee: M Raynal (France).