Harlequins vs Leinster match report: Joe Marler helps to put the bite back into Quins pack

Harlequins 24 Leinster 18

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According to reports in the West Country following a one-sided Premiership match at the Recreation Ground a little over a week ago, it took a team of police frogmen several hours to fish the Harlequins pack – outscrummaged, humiliated and covered in silt – out of the river Avon, into which they had been propelled at high speed by a wholly superior Bath forward unit. As changes of fortune go, then, events in south-west London were barely believable.

Having dried themselves off and pieced their broken spirit back together, the Quins heavy mob dished out some set-piece punishment of their own, giving themselves an even-money shot at winning a highly competitive European Champions Cup pool into the bargain.

They were helped no end by the return of the England loose-head prop Joe Marler, whose performance was nothing short of magnificent, but even so this was a transformation writ large.

Marler was nobody’s idea of a one-trick pony as he laid into the three-time champions. He carried strongly, tackled his substantial weight and as captain made an important call in the build-up to Nick Easter’s opening try midway through the third quarter. “We have a saying here along the lines of ‘one shot, one kill, don’t die wondering’,” the Quins director of rugby, Conor O’Shea, revealed afterwards, talking of Marler’s second-half decision to opt for a penalty kick to the corner rather than one at the sticks in an effort to overturn a 12-9 deficit. “Joe showed some bottle there. He’s growing into a fine skipper.”

But if this tight-as-a-drum contest was decided anywhere, it was at the scrum. And by taking the opposing front row to the cleaners in the way he did, Marler gave England a clear indication of how they might plot a Six Nations victory over Ireland, the title-holders, in Dublin at the beginning of March. Jack McGrath, Sean Cronin and Mike Ross, the Leinstermen who finished such a distant second here, are also the current Irish Test combination, although McGrath is likely to take a back seat once Cian Healy recovers from injury.

There was enough baggage attached to this game to constitute a wagon train: five years previously, when the two sides met in a Heineken Cup quarter-final at the same venue, the Londoners’ chicanery with a fake blood capsule sparked the biggest scandal ever to rock the club game in England – a scandal made infinitely worse by the kind of cover-up that would not have looked out of place in the White House of the mid-1970s. Happily, there were no echoes yesterday. Nick Evans, the Quins outside-half, left the fray early, just as he had in 2009, but as there was no conspiracy to get him back on the field illegally, his departure was free of ramifications.

Unbeaten in this tournament but struggling horribly in domestic competition, Quins could not, on the face of it, even dream of beating the Dubliners without a major contribution from Evans. So when the All Black No 10 limped off after just a dozen minutes, their prospects looked dark indeed – particularly as his understudy, Ben Botica, was on the long-term casualty list and the third-choice pivot, Tim Swiel, was still introducing himself to his clubmates after arriving from South Africa.

Yet as O’Shea pointed out, Swiel was another player to show  “bottle”. The newcomer made mistakes, not least in failing to convert Aseli Tikoirotuma’s game-turning interception try just shy of the hour, but he stood his ground defensively and coped calmly with the pressure applied by the powerful Leinster back-rowers Rhys Ruddock and Jamie Heaslip, both of whom had him lined up in the crosshairs on more than one occasion.

A couple of Swiel penalties, together with an early shot from Evans, allowed Quins to reach the interval on terms, the sweet-striking Ian Madigan having helped himself to nine points on behalf of the visitors. Then, after a long and rather ingenious attack featuring the hooker Dave Ward, the flanker Chris Robshaw and the lock George Robson, as well as Marler, the home side worked Easter within range and celebrated joyously as the No 8 stretched over in McGrath’s tackle.

“That’s the best I’ve seen Easter play in about 25 years,” said the Leinster coach Matt O’Connor through gritted teeth. You could see his point. Operating behind a dominant tight five, the 36-year-old back-rower had himself a whale of a time, repeatedly running hard off the base and dipping into the box of handling tricks that first alerted the England coach Brian Ashton to his potential at international level.

Not that Easter’s try was in any way sufficient: with Madigan in such threatening mood with the boot, Quins knew they required more. What they did not know, until it happened, was that Leinster would present them with the needful. Rob Kearney, the Lions Test full-back against the Springboks in 2009 and perhaps the form No 15 in Europe over the autumn series, tried to be a little too clever in bamboozling the home defence as he threw a bread-and-butter pass to Zane Kirchner down the right, and Tikoirotuma took full advantage to finish from the best part of 80 metres.

That and a left-footed drop goal from the right-footed Danny Care was enough to see the Londoners home and set up a fascinating return game this weekend. Leinster have already sold 35,000 tickets, with power to add. It seems the former champions will be taking it seriously.

Scorers: Harlequins – Tries Easter, Tikoirotuma; Conversion Swiel; Penalties Swiel 2, Evans; Drop goal Care.

Leinster – Penalties Madigan 6.

Harlequins: M Brown; M Yarde, M Hopper (T Casson 70), G Lowe, A Tikoirotuma; N Evans (T Swiel 12), D Care; J Marler (capt, D Marfo 74), D Ward (J Gray 66), W Collier (K Sinckler 66), C Matthews, G Robson, L Wallace (J Clifford 62), C Robshaw, N Easter.

Leinster: R Kearney; D Fanning, G D’Arcy (Z Kirchner 55), I Madigan, L Fitzgerald; J Gopperth, E Reddan (I Boss 3-10 and 60); J McGrath, S Cronin, M Ross (T Furlong 75), D Toner, M McCarthy (K Douglas 60), R Ruddock, J Murphy (J Conan 60), J Heaslip (capt).

Referee: J Garces (France).