An extraordinary ending did not change the result, or prevent Harlequins from regaining the leadership of the Aviva Premiership last night, but the howls of complaint from the home crowd drowned out the fireworks lighting the sky up around Twickenham.
Quins were on top and pushing for a bonus point when the sin-binning of Gloucester's Ben Morgan left the visitors scrummaging with seven men in the shadow of their posts. But though Quins were awarded a handful of free-kicks and penalties they were flabbergasted to blow the position by being penalised by the referee, Wayne Barnes, at the fifth or sixth reset for standing up in the front row.
Gloucester broke free for their fly-half Freddie Burns to make and convert a try at the posts by Billy Twelvetrees, and it was they not Quins who had the bonus.
"How many penalties should there be before a yellow card is given?" Harlequins' director of rugby, Conor O'Shea, said of the late scrums, while not disagreeing with the final decision by Barnes. The Quins captain, Nick Easter, said: "I am disappointed about that last penalty [at the scrum] but overall we'll take it."
There were players here with hopes of playing for England in the future, others absent (Danny Care, Chris Robshaw, Ugo Monye, Joe Marler) because they will be playing for England next week, and some who have given up all hope.
Gloucester's wing James Simpson-Daniel is in the final category and, looking for some fun, he and Mike Tindall stood on the short side of a scrum on halfway with 10 minutes gone. We never found out what was in their minds as the scrum was a mess, and it ended with Burns – one of those future prospects – booting the ball in the air.
So it turned out to be Harlequins who scored the first of their three first-half tries from a set-piece. It had an element of the accidental as Joe Gray missed his jumper at a line-out, but it dropped for Mo Fa'asavalu to run from the tail. Jimmy Cowan tracked back to haul the Samoan down but Quins had impetus and Nick Evans fed Tom Williams, whose long, flat pass to Brown sent the full-back outside Shane Monahan's tackle and battering through the combined effort on the line of Martyn Thomas, Tindall and Twelvetrees.
Evans's conversion had Harlequins 10-3 up but both teams were frustrated by the referee whistling against attacking players in the ruck. And Quins' scrum had been creaking too. They conceded the penalty with which Burns equalised Evans's opening score, and the front row also yielded the second in a sequence of three more Burns penalties for Gloucester. The last of these was made by Burns brightly generating momentum simply by lashing a penalty downfield. It had the desired effect when the Quins wing Sam Smith was caught rashly trying to run round Simpson-Daniel and was pinged for not releasing.
Undaunted, or perhaps jolted, Harlequins opened up to flip the scoreline round with two tries in the five minutes before half-time. Karl Dickson's tap-and-go set Williams running again, and he sent Matt Hopper in at the right-hand corner. Then Thomas rushed a pass on halfway and Smith intercepted for a 50-metre run-in, Evans adding the extras for 22-12.
It was nip and tuck to start the second half. Obstruction by Quins gave Burns his fifth penalty goal before Monahan arrived too early chasing a box-kick by Cowan and upended Brown at the price of a yellow card. But Evans was running freely and creating all sorts of danger to the wide. The New Zealander may have missed the past two weeks with a twisted knee but in that time he also agreed a three-year contract extension; with Ben Botica covering the gap ably, it represented a fantastic fortnight for Quins, such is Evans's importance to them.
Brown, Quins lock George Robson and Morgan had all been released to play after training with England in the early part of the week – Morgan with a must-do-better report from the national side. Much as Morgan strained at the scrum, Quins gradually got on top there. Evans missed an easy looking penalty with 56 minutes gone but had another chance three minutes later when Gloucester's loosehead replacement, Nick Wood, buckled in the engagement and the fly-half smacked the kick over from the 10-metre line.
Barnes's whistle had been through a thorough workout, with that one big call yet to come. Burns collected his sixth penalty from six attempts in the 62nd minute. Morgan needed treatment to a cut head and was shown a yellow card for killing the ball, and a Gloucester knock-on and overpowered scrum enabled Evans to make it 28-18. But neither Easter nor anyone else expected the scrum that was script-written for a penalty try to be so dramatically ripped up.
Harlequins M Brown; T Williams, M Hopper, T Casson (F Botica, 41), S Smith; N Evans, K Dickson; M Lambert, J Gray, J Johnston, O Kohn, G Robson, M Fa'asavalu, N Easter (capt), L Wallace.
Gloucester M Thomas; S Monahan, M Tindall (capt), B Twelvetrees, J Simpson-Daniel (R Cook, 41); F Burns, J Cowan (D Robson, 70); D Murphy (N Wood, 49), H Edmonds (T D'Apice, 70), R Harden (D Chistolini, 77), T Savage (P Buxton, 70), W James, M Cox, B Morgan, A Qera.
Referee W Barnes (London).
Tries: Brown, Hooper, Smith
Cons: Evans 2
Pens: Evans 3
Pens: Burns 6
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