Quins go top but fail to hit the heights
Harlequins 14 Bath 6: Bath squander chances yet still make it toughfor O'Shea's men after their three-week break
It may be a misjudgment and it may be doing Harlequins an injustice but they bear the hallmark of a team who cannot wait to get to the play-offs whereas their nearest rivals are cantering the run-in with greater confidence. The multi-coloured ones must trust their players, among whom the resting England captain Chris Robshaw sat out this controversial and in some senses extremely fortunate win over a stubborn Bath, and coaches to plot a way to ultimate success among opponents more used to the cut-throat denouement.
As Quins' director of rugby, Conor O'Shea, put it: "Saracens, Leicester and Northampton have been up there a long time. We are a team that aspires to do that." A pair of controversial yellow cards in the final quarter of this first match for Harlequins after a three-week break saw them reclaim top spot but Saracens, three points behind in second, will fancy effecting a leapfrog when the teams meet at Wembley next Saturday afternoon.
Robshaw, you would imagine, will be back for that, although it is not a must-win match in terms of securing a home semi-final. Whether another Quins back-rower, Mo Fa'asavalu, will be available will depend on the independent citing officer's view of the Samoan's clattering charge that forced Bath's 20-year-old fly-half Tom Heathcote off the field with three minutes remaining. It looked a classic – if that's the word – non-tackle of all shoulder and no arms, although O'Shea, leaping to his man's defence, said: "Mo is hard, he is physical, [but] people who know him know he's not a loose cannon." Sir Ian McGeechan, O'Shea's Bath counterpart, was quietly angry. "I hope the citing officer is looking at it," he said.
Fa'asavalu, who had made his comeback from injury from the bench and had just scored the only try of the match on the end of a sweeping right-to-left move from a line-out, was sent to the sin bin by referee Wayne Barnes. But the greater damage was to Bath. They had started without the unfit All Black No 10, Stephen Donald, and had already substituted another kicker, Olly Barkley, along with Nick Abendanon, the full-back who hurt an arm making a fine defensive recovery when Bath led 6-3 after 55 minutes. Two penalty goals by Nick Evans had put Quins ahead for the first time,9-6, before Fa'asavalu went over with Bath unluckily down to 14 men and exposed in the wide channels thanks to Jack Cuthbert being in the sin bin despite appearing to allow Mike Brown to land safely from taking a high ball before he tackled him.
The upshot of all that was the 6ft 5ins Cuthbert taking aim with two late penalties: the first of them for Fa'asavalu's sin-bin offence hit a post, the second skewed so far wide it was closer to the corner and Cuthbert jerked his head away in intense irritation. Not only did it cost Bath a losing bonus point, it emphasised the chances that had been missed when their No 8 Simon Taylor was tackled by Brown in the first half, and Olly Woodburn had a fumbling effort to score from Abendanon's beautiful run and dabbed kick turned down by the television match official.
"A couple of decisions went against us," said McGeechan. "His [Brown's] feet were on the ground [in the Cuthbert yellow-card incident] and Quins scored their try when Jackwent off."
Heathcote's "stinger" injury and Abendanon's hyperextended arm were not thought to be serious but McGeechan admitted Heineken Cup qualification rather than the top four was the realistic target now. He and O'Shea had spent part of the week on the five-man advisory panel considering the candidates to be England coach, though both men refused flatlyto confirm any timeline on the appointment, let alone the identity of the successful applicant.
Otherwise Quins, whose maul went well here, had done some training with the British women's handball team to fill in their three-week downtime. Betraying his probable rustiness, Evans had missed two kicks in the first half and refused a couple of shots at goal in the second, after one of which he doubled the calumnyby kicking the ball dead.
Heathcote, who kicked penalties in the fifth and 31st minutes – the second when Quins prop Joe Marler went to the sin-bin for a high tackle on Tom Biggs – either side of one by Evans, showed a willingness to run that ended with his timerity trumped by Fa'asavalu's force.
As for Danny Care, the Quins and England scrum-half facing an off-field allegation of sexual assault, O'Shea said: "We're well aware of all the facts and we are supportive of him."
Harlequins: M Brown; T Williams, G Lowe, J Turner-Hall, U Monye (R Chisholm, 50); N Evans, D Care (K Dickson, 60); J Marler (M Lambert, 67), J Gray, J Johnston (W Collier, 74), O Kohn (T Vallejos, 71), G Robson (capt), T Guest (M Fa'asavalu, 50), N Easter, L Wallace.
Bath: N Abendanon (J Cuthbert, 55); O Woodburn, MCarraro, O Barkley (D Hipkiss, 65), T Biggs; T Heathcote (K Palma-Newport, 77), M Claassens (M McMillan, 69); N Catt (C Beech, 65), P Dixon (R Batty, 65), D Wilson, D Attwood, R Caldwell (B Skirving, 65), C Fearns, S Taylor, F Louw (capt, G Mercer, 22).
Referee: W Barnes (London)
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