Nick Easter rises again as Harlequins continue to defy the odds
Leicester 9 Harlequins 22
The principal chat following Harlequins' second successive league win at Leicester surrounded Nick Easter, who on the ground where the great Dean Richards once roamed supreme from the base of the scrum gave Leicester's stand-in captain Jordan Crane a lesson in cute handling and where to put your body on the line to maximum effect.
Since taking charge at the turn of the year, England's head coach, Stuart Lancaster, has preferred Leicester's Thomas Waldrom to the now 34-year-old Easter in what might be called the shambling bear role. Lancaster and his forwards assistant, Graham Rowntree, were at Welford Road mainly to see 10 current England squad members, including the props Joe Marler and Dan Cole, whose packs finished about even in the scrummaging stakes with penalties galore on both sides in the 22-9 win for Quins.
"I know he's desperate to play for England again," Quins' England scrum-half Danny Care said of his club and erstwhile Test team-mate Easter, "and if he keeps playing like that there's no reason why not. He was on fire and we couldn't ask for more from him. England's loss is our gain. His carrying, his offloading – he's the talisman of this team and when he plays well, we play well."
Easter did not cover himself in glory at last autumn's World Cup – but then who did? Manu Tuilagi, perhaps, and he was a notable absentee here, with what Leicester described as a "bruised shoulder". Clubs are cagey with their medical bulletins, particularly when England squad players are involved. Tuilagi's fellow England centre, Jordan Turner-Hall, went off with a shoulder injury and though Harlequins counterpart Conor O'Shea said, "We think he'll be all right," Care was not so sure. Ross Chisholm (fibula) and Tom Williams (hip flexor) were also replaced and Care became an emergency wing in a mixed-up back line that Leicester could not exploit, lacking as they were Tuilagi and their strike runners Geordan Murphy and Ben Youngs. Much as Anthony Allen tried his bulleting breaks, Leicester failed to score a try for the second match running.
Including last May's play-off final at Twickenham, the champions have won three of the last four league meetings with the Tigers. Yet a check of the six leading bookmakers and exchanges who were quoting yesterday showed they all had Leicester at shorter odds than Quins for the title, perhaps because the win-loss score in the preceding 10 years was 15-3 to Leicester with one draw.
"When we keep seeing we're not favourites in games and we're not favourites to win the league, we're happy to play that card," Care said. "People think we're one-hit wonders. We believe in ourselves, we believe we can go anywhere and win. Four wins from four and top of the table, we'll take that."
The solitary try by Williams after 20 minutes was an exemplar of Harlequins' well-coached set piece and dynamic support. There was nothing flashy about George Robson batting back Joe Gray's line-out throw on the Leicester 10-metre line and Quins using Mo Fa'asavalu, Gray, Easter, Matt Hopper, Chris Robshaw, Mike Brown, Marler and Turner-Hall as muscle in rucks. It took them 10 phases to reach the 22 – but that was where they picked up pace where lesser sides lose it. Perfect passes by Nick Evans and Robson out of the tackle sent Williams to the posts, hampered only by the tweak the wing felt in his hip flexor as he went.
Asked if he thought Easter was looking trimmer this season, Care grinned beneath his boyband haircut. "The way we play it's hard for the forwards to keep the weight on because we expect them to keep running. They're losing weight left, right and centre, I'd imagine. Nick looks good, he looks quick. I think his mental quickness is what beats teams."
Leicester: Penalties Flood 3. Harlequins: Try Williams; Conversion Evans; Penalties Evans 4; Drop goal Care.
Leicester 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 Salvi, J Crane (capt).
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 (R Buchanan, 78), J Johnston, O Kohn, G Robson, M Fa'asavalu (T Guest, 56), C Robshaw (capt), N Easter.
Referee D Pearson (Northumberland).
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