Ten minutes from the end of a tumultuous contest, Harlequins were four points adrift of the reigning champions and preparing to bid the most reluctant of farewells to their Premiership title ambitions. But no side armed with players running as hot as the scrum-half Danny Care and the full-back Mike Brown are ever wholly without hope. The two England internationals, assisted by the newly arrived Ben Botica, conjured a training ground try in the corner and when Botica added a penalty from distance, their league season was alive again.
Every referee in Christendom has the capacity to turn Kingsholm into a bear pit – peace and quiet seldom reigns when Gloucester are at home, as we were reminded last weekend – but it takes a very special official indeed to have them climbing the walls in the more sedate surroundings of The Stoop. Hats off, therefore, to Tim Wigglesworth, who presided over that hellfire derby in the West Country seven days ago and maintained standards last night by serving up another helping of bedlam.
The fair-minded among a capacity crowd might also point out that for all the ructions over forward passes and penalty tries, this was a match to remember – a fact that should be registered in Wigglesworth’s credit column. But rugby pandemonium is following the Yorkshireman around like a sulphuric smell at the moment and he is undeniably attracting the wrong kind of reputation. Leicester’s opening try, scored by the Fijian wing Vereniki Goneva in the fifth minute after a clattering tackle by Julian Salvi and some smart open-field link work from the captain Ed Slater and the No 8 Jordan Crane, was a case in point, for there may well have been a couple of forward passes in the build-up. And the champions were none too impressed by Wigglesworth’s decision to punish their retreating scrum to the tune of seven points shortly before the interval.
That said, it was a feather in the collective front-row cap for Mark Lambert, drafted in for the injured England loose-head Joe Marler at short notice, and the indefatigable hooker Dave Ward, who is having the time of his life this season. Not forgetting the young tight-head prop Kyle Sinckler, who will surely play international rugby if he improves his fitness and spends more time running than ambling.
Sinckler made some big statements here: he forced a penalty out of the Argentine scrummager Marcos Ayerza midway through the third quarter – an opportunity accepted by Nick Evans from a position wide on the right. The Londoners were now in the lead for the first time at 16-13 but within seconds, a trademark broken-field charge from Manu Tuilagi gave the impressive flanker Jamie Gibson the chance to wrestle over for a try handsomely converted by Toby Flood. By that recovery, Quins marked themselves out as a side well worthy of place in the knock-out stage.
Scorers: Harlequins – Tries: Penalty try, Brown. Conversion: Evans. Penalties: Evans 3, Botica. Leicester – Tries: Goneva, Gibson. Conversions: Flood 2. Penalties: Flood 2.
Harlequins: M Brown; O Lindsay-Hague, T Molenaar, J Turner-Hall, S Smith; N Evans (B Botica 68), D Care; M Lambert, D Ward, K Sinckler, C Matthews, G Robson, L Wallace (M Fa’asavalu 66), C Robshaw (capt), N Easter.
Leicester: M Tait; B Scully (N Morris 73), M Tuilagi, A Allen, V Goneva; T Flood (O Williams 60), B Youngs (D Mele 73); M Ayerza, N Briggs (R Hawkins 57), L Mulipola, E Slater (capt), G Kitchener (G Parling 61), J Gibson, J Salvi, J Crane (P Matera 20).
Referee: T Wigglesworth (Yorkshire)