The try-count? One. The body-count? Dozens. Leinster, the lone Irish province without a tradition of overt physicality, fought the mother of all Heineken Cup battles with Harlequins at the Stoop yesterday, and emerged with a single-point victory that might just be the making of them. If they must play neighbouring Munster, the reigning champions, in next month's semi-final – thanks a bunch – they will at least do it on home soil in Dublin's fair city. It should be some occasion.
Of course, Harlequins have never had much of a reputation for close-quarter ferocity themselves, but a knock-out tie in this tournament would put hairs on anyone's chest. The courage and commitment on show yesterday afternoon beggared belief – quite how the likes of Chris Robshaw, the Quins flanker, and Felipe Contepomi, the Leinster outside-half, did what they did, God alone knows – yet there was barely a hint of brutishness off the ball. They deserve medals the size of soup bowls, these blokes. All of them.
Not that the contest was entirely uncontroversial. Seven minutes into stoppage time, the Quins goal-kicker Nick Evans returned to the field for the bloodied Tom Williams, having limped off it with a knee injury precisely 40 minutes previously. No one was entirely sure whether this was within the laws and the Leinster hierarchy made no secret of their suspicions, but Dean Richards, the Londoners' director of rugby, cleared it with the officials on the touchline before propelling his prize All Black back into the frenzy.
Had Evans succeeded with what would have been a match-winning drop goal in the 91st minute, there might have been a hell of a row. But as he could barely run, let alone kick, an accurate strike from 35-metres plus was not within his powers. The attempt drifted left and died, taking Quins' hopes of a first Heineken semi-final with it.
Contepomi was also smashed around, but apart from the 10 minutes he spent in the sin bin for obstruction, he lasted the course. Given that he was comprehensively smithereened by Ugo Monye after half an hour and looked for all the world as though he would play no further part, it was a remarkable display of bravery, bordering on madness. Come the last knockings, he was still clattering into tackles with reckless disregard for his own well-being.
It was the Argentine who kicked the points that took Leinster home, all of them in the first half. His first penalty, from 40 metres, was a test of body as much as nerve, for he had been hurt a few seconds previously. The second was much simpler, stemming as it did from a brilliant chip-and-gather raid by Brian O'Driscoll that would have resulted in a try but for David Strettle's defensive expertise. Six points? It may not sound like a king's ransom, but in circumstances such as these, each and every one of them was pure gold.
Leinster, armed with a back division to die for but some way short of intimidating in the tight-forward department, were good value for the lead. In Jamie Heaslip, very much a Lions prospect at No 8, and the Wallaby blind-side flanker Rocky Elsom, whose Christian name could hardly be more appropriate, they possessed players of sufficient quality to bridge the gap between the piano players and piano shifters, and for 40 long minutes, Quins struggled to find their rhythm. With Evans struggling on a right leg heavily bandaged at the start – he could barely punt, and he was forced to pass early to avoid contact – their problems were mounting up.
But these "new" Harlequins, as opposed to the horizontal pacifists of old, are not lording it at the top end of the Premiership without good reason. For much of the second half they claimed squatters' rights deep in Leinster territory, and they finally broke the game open after an 11-minute siege. They could have scored any number of times during this prolonged assault: Danny Care was denied a try by Luke Fitzgerald at the posts; Gary Botha was held up in goal; Nick Easter and the ever-willing Robshaw hurled themselves at the whitewash, only to be scragged at the death. Finally, they moved the ball wide right to Mike Brown, who milked an obvious overlap to cross with a man spare.
Had a fully functional Evans been on the field at this pivotal juncture, the odds on a successful conversion would have been short indeed. All Black kickers tend to hit the spot with the ones that really matter. Unfortunately for Quins, the job fell to Chris Malone, who has been known to miss when the chips are down. Miss, he did. The ball wobbled across the face of the posts, and Leinster were still a point to the good.
And there they remained, by hook or by crook. They all left the field under their own steam, too – even O'Driscoll, the captain of Grand Slam-winning Ireland, who twice gave the Lions head coach Ian McGeechan, watching from the stand, a dose of the heebie-jeebies by battering himself senseless. Whatever the most celebrated centre in European rugby gave to Leinster yesterday, he will give to the Lions this summer. Always assuming, of course, that he survives trial by Munster at Croke Park. McGeechan will have named his squad, and his leader, by then, but he will still be saying his prayers.
Scorers: Harlequins: Try: Brown. Leinster: Penalties: Contepomi 2.
Harlequins: M Brown; D Strettle, G Tiesi, J Turner-Hall, U Monye; N Evans (C Malone 47, T Williams 79, Evans 87), D Care; C Jones, G Botha, M Ross, J Percival (J Evans 77), G Robson, C Robshaw, W Skinner (capt), N Easter.
Leinster: R Kearney; I Nacewa, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald; F Contepomi, C Whitaker; C Healy, B Jackman, S Wright, L Cullen (capt), M O'Kelly, R Elsom, S Jennings, J Heaslip.
Referee: N Owens (Wales).Reuse content