A stunning bonus-point win by Harlequins set them up nicely for the return to European action in the derby with Wasps next Saturday evening, as Nick Easter’s deftness and vision revived talk of the former England No 8 being given another chance by his country, unlikely though it seems at the age of 36.
The result thickened the logjam in the chase for Premiership play-off places, with two points covering Wasps in fourth down to Sale in eighth, and Quins and Leicester in between. Tigers, the 10-times champions, will not be going much further domestically or in Europe if this blunt form is the only guide. Four penalty goals by Owen Williams, who went past 100 Premiership points for the season in the process, was a poor return on eight visits made to the home 22.
By contrast, Harlequins’ England captain Chris Robshaw revelled in his first appearance in five weeks after a shoulder injury. Robshaw started hesitantly but, after “taking a whack” from Leicester, as Quins’ director of rugby Conor O’Shea put it, his obdurate link play was crucial in his team’s non-stop offloading.
Easter was making his 250th appearance for the club and showed the handling skills and positional sense that have warmed the cockles of Stoopites’ hearts down the years; witness the underarm offload out of Tom Youngs’ tackle that created the first try for Danny Care in the 24th minute. Care has played enough of those 250 matches cheek by jowl with Easter to anticipate the No 8’s every step, and the scrum-half who was facing his England rival Ben Youngs raced into a gap created by quick passing in the aftermath of a line-out. With the conversion by Ben Botica Quins led 10-9; Botica had kicked one penalty to three by Williams in the opening quarter.
Easter has not played a Test since the 2011 World Cup, when neither he nor England covered themselves in glory, but he agreed a two-year contract extension at Quins last week, and O’Shea said the national side’s head coach Stuart Lancaster had told him the door could be reopened for a possible recall this summer. “Nick’s a warrior and the more pressure we’re under, the better he plays,” said O’Shea.
With news that England’s incumbent No 8 Ben Morgan of Gloucester had undergone an operation on his broken left leg, there is a vacancy in the national squad to be named on Wednesday week (21 January) for the Six Nations Championship. The England forwards coach Graham Rowntree had a first-hand view of Easter here. So, too, Lawrence Dallaglio, the former national No 8 and captain who in television commentary recommended Easter’s “ability and wise head” should be used against Wales in Cardiff on 6 February. Exeter’s Thomas Waldrom was next in line during last November’s internationals, and the arguments surrounding Toulon’s Steffon Armitage are well rehearsed.
Two minutes before half-time Quins’ insistent handling opened Leicester up again. Graham Kitchener was penalised for killing the ball in his 22, and Care went for the tapped penalty. With Marland Yarde supporting the move well, the ball found its way to the flanker Jack Clifford for a stretching finish.
The 15-9 lead became even healthier five minutes into the second half when Yarde scored a bizarre try – only the England wing’s fourth since he joined from London Irish last summer – with a long run from midfield on halfway, untouched by a Leicester hand, after Mike Brown’s counter attack, Botica’s chip towards the corner and Williams’s sliced clearance kick caught by Easter.
When Quins had a penalty in the 50th minute, the adrenaline of domination might have prompted a kick to touch looking for the bonus point. But they took a breath and Botica kicked the goal instead for a two-score advantage at 25-9. The fourth try would arrive, eventually, anyway.
Williams replied immediately with a penalty, and Botica missed two tricky attempts for Quins, but the multi-coloured ones weathered a mini-fightback as they went about completing Tigers’ fourth consecutive loss at the Stoop in all competitions. Leicester beat Bath last week, so not all is dire, but they could do with a fit Manu Tuilagi to put oomph into their midfield; they would also like to see Tom Croft revive his old elan and energy – though the Lions flanker made his 100th Premiership appearance here, a telling statistic is that it has taken him more than nine years to achieve the ton, such has been his sad run of injuries.
With normal time up, and Quins probing from a midfield scrum, Joe Trayfoot was allowed an off-the-floor pass that Brown raced on to and the full-back’s outside pass was run in by Tim Swiel, the replacement fly-half, who also converted.
“We spoke before Christmas about it being time to turn the season round,” said Easter. “We were close against Northampton, then last week [a 24-13 win at London Welsh] was sticky, so we knew we needed a big performance.”
Harlequins: M Brown; M Yarde, M Hopper, G Lowe, U Monye (T Williams, 32); B Botica (T Swiel, 70), D Care; J Marler (capt, D Marfo 75), J Gray (R Buchanan, 65), K Sinckler (W Collier, 62), C Matthews, G Robson (S Twomey, 77), J Clifford (J Trayfoot, 77), C Robshaw, N Easter.
Tries: Care, Clifford, Yarde, Swiel
Cons: Botica 2, Swiel
Pens: Botica 2
Leicester Tigers: M Tait; A Thompstone (S Bai, 65), V Goneva, A Allen, M Benjamin; O Williams (F Burns, 66-75), B Youngs (capt, S Harrison 63); M Ayerza (M Rizzo, 63), T Youngs (L Ghiraldini, 63), F Balmain (L Mulipola, 56), G Kitchener (S de Chaves, 75), G Parling, T Croft (J Gibson, 56), J Salvi, J Crane (Croft, 77).
Pens: Wiliams (4)
Referee: L Pearce (London).
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