Harlequins' Rory Clegg, who turns 22 next Friday, has been obliged to play understudy to the former All Black fly-half Nick Evans for so long that he risked going from one of England's coming men to a will-he-ever-make-it. In Evans's absence with a hand injury yesterday, Clegg had an up and down match but sealed Quins' 11th straight away win in all competitions with a touchline kick in the final five minutes.
As is the way of these things, it mostly rubbed out the memory of Clegg's five missed kicks out of six that had gone before, in a tricky wind, and considering it came four days after Quins had lost their unbeaten domestic record for the season in a high-profile defeat by Saracens at Twickenham, it was more than welcome to the league leaders. "Rory Clegg showed incredible bottle," said Conor O'Shea, Quins' director of rugby. "His general play was magnificent but though he is normally an 80 per cent kicker he wasn't today and it took guts to land that kick."
Harlequins have been far from perennial title challengers but they need only another win or two in the 10 remaining Premiership matches to make the play-offs and already are odds-on to earn a home semi-final.
Exeter's ambitions in only their second Premiership season? They still stretch to a magnificently commendable place in next season's Heineken Cup by finishing in the top six. And, if this match exposed some limitations to their game and squad, it also reaffirmed the great vibe that exists in the Premiership's furthest staging post to the South-west: all waving flags and cheery chanting to their infectious theme tune, the Tomahawk Chop Song.
It was a clash of styles all right. Quins led early when they earned a penalty for hands in the ruck, Danny Care spied a gap and, true to his livelyform of recent weeks, the England No 9 raced to the goalline for a 5-0 lead inside three minutes. It had come from an Exeter fumble behind a strong scrum and, as expected, the set-piece was an area of profit.
Gray and Joe Marler are among umpteen Harlequins touted for England call-ups this month but Marler's scrummaging is one of his weaker suits; not a happy state for a loosehead prop. So Quins' fast-moving, handling game came with the knowledge that any spill gave Marler and friends a scrummaging test.
They had also travelled below full strength for a late kick-off dictated by television and hardly conducive to Londoners preferring their New Year revelry in Trafalgar Square to a pint of heavy at the disco in Sandy Park's Wigwam Bar. Evans will also miss next week's match with Nortahmpton, while two of the Premiership's most effective back-rowers – Nick Easter and Mo Fa'asavalu – were rested four days on from the 19-11 defeat by second-placed Saracens. On the upside they had Tom Guest returning after a broken arm.
Sure enough Quins conceded three penalties in the scrum in the first half. From the first of them on 12 minutes, Ignacio Mieres chose to go to touch, James Phillips secured the line-out and Quins pulled the maul down, giving Exeter's Argentinian fly-half three points from the 22.
After 20 minutes, Mieres was less effective, missing touch by going for too much distance and Quins cleared. But Clegg missed his third goal-kick of the half in the 29th minute and when Mieres thumped one over from just inside the halfway line soon afterwards, Exeter led 6-5. In between times, a good position for Harlequins was lost when Care appeared impeded as he tried to collect Mike Brown's pass out of a scrambling tackle near the posts. Clegg whacked a penalty over just before the break.
Though Clegg's hands were slick, his boot was not, and that plus the scrummaging made for a shaky platform for the Quins centres Jordan Turner-Hall and Matt Hopper, the latter keen to impress against the club for whom his father once played.
But Harlequins defended with some of the rushing, suffocating style Saracens had inflicted on them and, at the post-tackle, Exeter racked up too many transgressions. Only Clegg's clumping penalty misses after 51 and 54 minutes prevented Quins moving further ahead.
Exeter had the same quick turnaround from their day-after-Boxing Day defeat at London Irish, so Thomas and Mieres made way for Kevin Barrett and Gareth Steenson – the latter whose kicking last season did much to help Exeter settle. The Ulsterman had a shot from halfway with nine minutes to play that dropped short, his big chance soon came. Brown was caught well offside and Steenson set his tee on the 10-metre line. The kick was a wobbler and it needed the television match official's thumbs-up when the assistant referees Andrew Pearce and Paul Dix were unsure it had cleared the bar.
Clegg though, had an ace up his sleeve, arrowing a penalty over from the right-hand touchline after 76 minutes. It left Exeter with one more attack and one more scrum when Monye, on the retreat, knocked forward near his line. But at length a decent position for Steenson had him covering his face in anguish as his drop at goal skewed wide left.
"I can't say we deserved to win," said Rob Baxter, the Exeter coach. "But we showed our usual grit andI'm pleased we at least had a chance to win."
Exeter L Arscott; G Camacho, N Sestaret (J Tatupu, 71), J Shoemark, M Jess; I Mieres (G Steenson, 65), H Thomas (K Barrett, 65); B Sturgess, N Clark (S Alcott, 56), J Andress (C Mitchell, 44), T Hayes (capt), A Muldowney, R Baxter, J Phillips (T Johnson, 52), J Scaysbrook.
Harlequins M Brown; T Williams, M Hopper, J Turner-Hall, U Monye; R Clegg, D Care; J Marler (M Lambert, 71), J Gray, T Fairbrother (J Johnston, 50), T Vallejos (P Browne, 71), G Robson, C Robshaw (capt), T Guest (C York, 71), L Wallace.
Referee JP Doyle (London).
Pens: Mieres 2, Steenson
Pens: Clegg 2