Early days in the season but, blimey, what a chastening early evening this was for Leicester. Last year's top try scorers went a second match in a row without managing one and the team who beat them to the title in the Twickenham final in May made it four wins out of four in the new campaign. Confidence is radiating through Harlequins, from the captain Chris Robshaw outwards, and his John Wayne gait epitomised a collective swagger that left the Welford Road crowd mumbling in grudging appreciation.
Eight members of the England squad started the match in front of the national head coach, Stuart Lancaster, and his forwards assistant,Graham Rowntree, though they had to wait for Quins' prop Joe Marler to go head to a newly shaved head – Marler having recently de-Mohawked himself – with Leicester's Dan Cole, who was on the bench.
Not that there was fun lacking from the scrum. A couple of early collapses earned penalties for Harlequins – Nick Evans kicked one of them to equalise Toby Flood's sixth- minute effort – and there was one in return for Flood to make it 6-3. So it went at the scrum – tit for tat almost – throughout.
The line-out was a different story. It was one of woe for Tigers, though their director of rugby, Richard Cockerill, complained afterwards that two crucial drives in the second half were pulled down without a yellow card against Harlequins. But even Cockerill conceded Quins "played a good game". True, and then some.
The first and only try came at a cost to the scorer, Tom Williams, who pulled a muscle as he ran under the posts and had to go off. Two more Quins backs – Jordan Turner-Hall and Ross Chisholm – followed him later. But the try's execution was more or less foot (and hand) perfect. Joe Gray, the Harlequins hooker vying with Leicester's Tom Youngs to assume the England squad vacancy left by the injured Rob Webber, hit George Robson at the top of a line-out and Quins rattled through their now trademark quick offloads as they moved through several phases. Evans's pass out of the tackle on the 22 and Robson's equally adroit offload sent Williams sprinting, then limping, through. Evans converted and when Danny Care, Quins' England scrum-half, arrowed a dropped goal over after 30 minutes, the champions led 13-6.
Flood pushed a kick wide from another scrum penalty, and though the Leicester fly-half is at the front of the queue for England's No 10 jersey, his line-kicking was off beam too in the first half and his inside centre, Anthony Allen, looked more adept at making the incisive plays. To be fair this "second five-eighth" approach is the way Leicester have long liked it. Overall, though, it remains a failing of many Premiership backlines that overlaps go begging. Leicester blew one in the run up to Flood's first kick.
Back here, Flood and Evans missed a penalty each shortly before half-time. Oddly, in view of what had gone before, Marler and company appeared to splinter Leicester at the first big scrum of the second half without a penalty awarded. It led, nevertheless, to Quins going 16-6 up when the workaholic Leicester flanker Julian Salvi, who had perpetrated a couple of superb turnovers earlier on, did not release in the tackle. The whole sequence had begun with Robshaw's side refusing a kickable penalty – and that was simply more evidence of their self-belief – as Evans eventually accepted the three points.
When Flood twice kicked for a line-out in the opposition 22 rather than for goal, Leicester were unable to profit. From the first the forwards were frustrated and Flood's shot-to-nothing grubber ricocheted away; from the second Nick Easter – the Quins No 8 no longer a part of England's thinking – stole Youngs's line-out throw. Cockerill's Harlequins counterpart, Conor O'Shea, was beaming. "Nick [Easter] is the best No 8 in England and it doesn't matter whether he's 19 or 34," said O'Shea. "He's not written off his international career and if he keeps on doing it, he'll knock his way back in."
With Cole now on, Leicester forced another penalty for a front-row collapse and Flood landed a solid kick from 35 metres. But the poker-faced Evans called that and raised it with two smoothly-stroked penalties in the final 13 minutes. A try had gone begging when Mike Brown and Ugo Monye muffed their lines, and Quins' backline was out of shape, but none of that was enough to keep them off top spot in the four-week-old table.
Leicester Tigers S Hamilton; N Morris (A Thompstone 74), M Smith, A Allen, V Goneva; T Flood, S Harrison (P Phibbs 74); B Stankovich (L Mulipola 48), T Youngs (G Chuter 53-61), M Castrogiovanni (D Cole 48), G Kitchener, G Parling, S Mafi (T Waldrom 48), J Crane (capt), J Salvi.
Harlequins M Brown; T Williams (R Chisholm 21; K Dickson 61), M Hopper, J Turner-Hall (R Clegg 49), U Monye; N Evans, D Care; J Marler, J Gray, J Johnston, O Kohn, G Robson, M Fa'asavalu (T Guest 56), N Easter, C Robshaw (capt).
Referee D Pearson (Northumberland).
Pens: Flood 3
Pens: Evans 4
Drop goal: CareReuse content