Harlequins strode into the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup yesterday, leading the way in every respect. So they should, their critics will say, given that they have emerged from comfortably the weakest pool with one pool round remaining, though the scoreline at the Twickenham Stoop belies Connacht's commitment in defence.
The English champions, who travel to Biarritz next Friday to complete Pool Three, have mustered 24 from a possible 25 match points and are averaging 45 points a game. Such an achievement does not suggest a wholly competitive pool, though Conor O'Shea, the Harlequins director of rugby, emphasises the memory of defeat by Connacht last season which helped drive his club towards success in the Premiership.
More to the point, Harlequins are in the knockout stage, almost certainly at home barring a mathematical miracle. They reached the last eight in 1997 and 1998, but their first home quarter-final, in 2009, did not end well: that was the loss to Leinster which produced the Bloodgate scandal that hung over the club like a cloud for a year and more.
That memory has been laid to rest by the positive approach taken by O'Shea and so many of the players he inherited, most notably Chris Robshaw. "It's only my second European quarter-final and not many of the players here have been in that position and progressed," the England captain said. "We don't want to pass that by, we want to be a force in Europe."
If a penalty try gave Harlequins some first-half breathing space, the second half produced another five tries, of which the most popular by a distance was scored by Ugo Monye. It was the wing's 200th appearance for the club and, in a week when he was demoted by England to the Saxons squad, bore the hallmark of class as his strength allowed him to wrench clear of two tacklers and his speed carried him round the remaining defence.
By then, Connacht's plans were in ruins. They pressured the home side's attacking game for much of the first half, forcing Nick Evans into a rare inglorious moment when he was first charged down and then put a clearance straight into touch. But their scrum struggled and the penalty count against them by the break was a massive 8-1.
In the third quarter both Johnny O'Connor and Fetu'u Vainikolo received yellow cards for obstruction within two minutes of each other.
One of the maxims of the amateur era was that, when under the cosh – and reduced to 13 men, which you could say was Connacht's position – you could always start a fight, and there were a series of meaningless running battles, most involving Quins' Joe Marler, who eventually visited the sin-bin too, along with Ethienne Reynecke, the replacement Connacht hooker.
But O'Shea had no concerns with Marler's discipline: "You never let yourself get pushed around and Joe never went over the edge," he said. "I thought he stood up for himself and his friends." Marler's friends were quite happy to stand up for themselves: Tom Williams, so intimately involved in Bloodgate, scored two tries, Mike Brown contributing to both.
O'Connor scored a well-worked try from a line-out for Connacht, who will be coached next season by Pat Lam, the former Samoa No 8 succeeding Eric Elwood in June. Thereafter it was all Harlequins after Monye had run in from 40 metres. George Lowe collected a grub-kick by Evans and Ben Botica rolled his way over.
Harlequins M Brown; T Williams, M Hopper (G Lowe, 54), T Casson (B Botica, 69), U Monye; N Evans, D Care (K Dickson, 66); J Marler (sin-bin 60; M Lambert, 70), J Gray (R Buchanan, 58), J Johnston (W Collier, 69), O Kohn (C Matthews, 77), G Robson, M Fa'asavalu (Lambert, 69-70), N Easter (T Guest, 52), C Robshaw (capt).
Connacht R Henshaw; T O'Halloran, E Griffin, D McSharry, F Vainikolo (sin-bin 52-62); M Jarvis (M Nikora, 49), K Marmion (J Loxton, 66); D Buckley (B Wilkinson, 44), J Harris-Wright (E Reynecke, 54, sin-bin 60-70), N White (capt; R Loughney, 50), M Swift (E Grace, 54), M McCarthy, A Browne, E McKeon (M Kearney, 15), J O'Connor (sin-bin 50-60).
Referee N Paterson (Scotland).
Tries: Penalty try, Williams 2, Monye, Lowe, Botica
Cons: Evans 3, Botica
Pens: Evans 3
Pen: JarvisReuse content