Patience is not a virtue commonly associated with the masculine gender – still less with young men not yet in need of a regular shave – so it was startling, bordering on the jaw-dropping, to watch Harlequins chisel out the most important bonus-point victory of their season on the day it mattered most. Ollie Lindsay-Hague, Kyle Sinckler and Charlie Matthews are barely recognised in their own living rooms, let alone by the rugby public at large, yet these people were heavily implicated in a resilient performance that put the Londoners within touching distance of the Premiership semi-finals.
That Quins dragged themselves off the canvas to such effect – at one stage early in the second half, they were 23-5 down and disappearing from the play-off equation at the speed of sound – spoke volumes both for their cool-headedness and their collective spirit: not every side missing players as influential as the England full-back Mike Brown and the ultra-dependable lock George Robson would have found the wherewithal to make do and mend. As Conor O’Shea, their rugby director, said in reflecting on a compelling contest: “Whatever happens to us over the rest of the season, we know that the development of this group has been fast-tracked.”
Mind you, it helps no end to have a figure like Chris Robshaw in the mix when things have gone wrong in the treatment room – and are going even more wonky on the field. It may be that the national captain makes fewer errors than any flanker in red-rose history: yesterday, as per usual, he made every tackle that was his make, plus a few that belonged to others, and delivered the ball faultlessly from every contact situation. But there was more to Robshaw’s display than mere technical expertise, as O’Shea was quick to acknowledge.
“Go back and watch a rerun of our victory over Leicester a couple of weeks ago,” he said. “The look on Chris’s face at the end… it was as if he’d just won the biggest match of his life, and that tells you everything you need to know about what he means to this club. He was phenomenal out there today. Again. When we were all that way behind, he was the one dragging people together and saying ‘we ain’t gonna lose’.”
This result, so unlikely for so long, leaves Quins preparing themselves for a straight shootout with Bath at The Stoop this Saturday. The prize? The last remaining place in a knockout stage already featuring Saracens, Northampton and Leicester. A win will be enough for Robshaw and company, unless the West Countrymen score four tries in losing by seven points or fewer – at which point, things will get extremely complicated. Given the intensity of the rugby likely to be played, the odds on calculators being needed are very long indeed.
There again, there seemed little point in placing a bet on a Quins victory here. Behind for 74 minutes, they finally nudged their way ahead with an unusual try from a line-out – a score that was either brilliantly conceived or served up to them on a silver platter, depending on your point of view. Dave Ward, that arch-pilferer of a hooker currently in the best form of his career, threw the ball to the front, where Tom Guest, recently arrived off the bench, caught it, returned it from whence it came and then ambled over when Ward found him a second time. Too easy for words? It seemed that way on first viewing, but then, simplicity is sometimes devilishly difficult to achieve.
It was not the first time Exeter had conceded the kind of score that sends self-respecting defence coaches up the wall, over it, and down the other side. No sooner had Dave Lewis, their scrum-half, added to Gareth Steenson’s early penalty with a dummying score off a driving maul than Ugo Monye, back in the big time after a month of injury hassle, swatted aside Steenson as though he were nothing more than an irritating gnat and cruised in at the right corner.
A similar story unfolded a few minutes into the second period. Exeter, determined to attack whenever the opportunity arose and frequently guilty of attempting to even when it did not, realised that Quins were far too narrow down the right and forced them to pay through the nose for their lack of organisation, Ian Whitten wrong-footing the scrambling Monye before flicking an inside pass to Matt Jess, who scored at the sticks. Three minutes later, Robshaw’s intelligent link play gave Nick Evans the chance to step off his left foot and slice through the Devonians without a meaningful hand being laid upon him.
Evans, such a reassuring figure for Quins when the contest is at its tightest, continued to guide his side back into the argument with a couple of penalties, the first of which was awarded against the Exeter lock Damian Welch for a crafty football-style trip on Danny Care – a sin that rightly deposited him in the first circle of rugby hell, otherwise known as the sin-bin. But Steenson was also on target from the kicking tee and it was only when Care took advantage of a decisive high catch from Monye to scamper clear on 66 minutes that a successful comeback became something more than a pipedream.
Even then, Exeter gave themselves a some breathing space with a fifth Steenson penalty, awarded when Ross Chisholm, fresh on the field, was turned over on the floor by a pumped-up Whitten. But with Robshaw at his most inspirational and Evans making the kind of calls a team has a right to expect from an outside-half good enough to play World Cup rugby for the All Blacks, the visitors found a way through the fires.
“I am amazed by the strength of the players’ belief, in themselves and in the type of game we play,” said O’Shea, who wore the look of a man who had been through the emotional wringer. “Now, they can’t wait for the weekend.”
Scorers: Exeter: Tries Lewis, Jess; Conversions Steenson 2; Penalties Steenson 5. Harlequins:Tries Monye, Evans, Care, Guest; Conversion Evans 2; Penalties Evans 2.
Exeter: P Dollman; M Jess, I Whitten (T James, 74), S Hill (H Slade, 66), F Vainikolo; G Steenson, D Lewis (H Thomas, 59); C Rimmer (C Mitchell, 66), L Cowan-Dickie (J Yeandle, 59), H Tui (A Brown, 59), D Mumm (capt), D Welch, D Ewers (J Scaysbrook, 23), B White (J Phillips, 70), K Horstmann.
Harlequins: O Lindsay-Hague; T Williams (R Chisholm, 70), T Molenaar, J Turner-Hall, U Monye; N Evans, D Care (K Dickson, 76); J Marler, D Ward, K Sinckler, C Matthews, N Kennedy (T Guest, 62), L Wallace (M Fa’asavalu, 61), C Robshaw (capt), N Easter.
Referee: A Small (London).