Heineken Cup: Harlequins face stiff French test of credentials after being left red-faced by Scarlets
Harlequins’ doomed attempt to play fast and loose against a Scarlets team that knows no other way – “we will never change,” said the Welsh region’s manager and former Wales wing Garan Evans, as he boarded a bus emblazoned with a rampant dragon for a happy journey back down the M4 – leaves them contemplating more of the same pain this weekend, away to Clermont Auvergne in the second round of Heineken Cup pool matches.
It will need all Quins’ past resourcefulness in European wins away to Stade Français, Toulouse and Biarritz, and more, to prevent this season’s continental campaign being effectively over inside the first fortnight. Clermont are capable of the same kaleidoscopic back play that brought Scarlets three cracking tries in a 33-26 win at The Stoop, plus the Massif Central mob have a fearsome forward strength that the 2012 English champions currently lack. Added to that, Harlequins have a worry over the England scrum-half Danny Care, who survived a boot from Scarlets’ tighthead prop Samson Lee scraping across his face, but finished with an injured foot in a protective casing. The Samoan flanker Mo Fa’asavalu came off in the first half with a hamstring strain.
Scarlets had been in no better fettle in their domestic league but in the face of tackling described by Quins’ angry coach Conor O’Shea as “touch rugby”, they ran free. “He [O’Shea] was obviously disappointed and we need to have a good look at ourselves,” Care said. “The performance simply wasn’t good enough. You’ve got to go [to Clermont] with a belief that you’re going to win or you’ll get a hiding. At Quins we’re a confident bunch so we still back ourselves.”
Scott Williams, the Wales centre who ripped a ball from England and ran it in for a winning try in the Six Nations Championship across the road at Twickenham 18 months ago, was at it again on his first return to the area. The centre robbed Quins’ England prop Joe Marler to help Aaron Shingler set up Jordan Williams’s try for a 33-19 lead with 62 minutes gone. And in the first half the Scarlets’ No 12 did all the work himself, slashing past Rob Buchanan and Ben Botica before dummying Care comprehensively on a 50-metre run to the posts.
Scarlets’ four Williamses are not related, other than by the Llanelli lineage of a love of running and handling (even if a couple of them hail from Swansea). The Scarlets captain and Lions centre Jonathan Davies described Jordan Williams as having “magic in his boots” while Liam at full-back was foxed just the once by a wicked bounce and the Scarlets’ first try came from the scrum-half Rhodri. Only Quins’ Tom Williams missed out on the fun.
“Twickenham’s been kind to me, yes,” said Scott Williams. “It’s a special place. But that [the victory over England] is two seasons ago now and I can’t keep living off that. All the boys were outstanding. The forwards stepped up; even when we were down to 14 men [with two yellow cards to props] we were still winning scrums.”
The most glaring Quins non-tackle was by Botica when Jordan Williams jinked past the New Zealander, who started in the absence of the injured centres George Lowe, Tom Casson and Jordan Turner-Hall. Two gutsy tries by England full-back Mike Brown kept Quins in contention and but for a feathered toe in touch by Paul Sackey late on, they might have drawn.
In this match at least, Scarlets barely missed George North, their Wales and Lions wing now at Northampton. “George was a huge loss,” Davies said, “but we’ve tried to adapt with Jordan. He’s been really dangerous all year and he showcased that today. He’s extremely talented; in training you make sure you’re on his team because he’s got some pretty mad skills.”
Scarlets host Racing Métro next, mindful that they won away to Northampton in the first round of Europe two seasons ago and promptly lost at home to Leinster. “People question whether the regions do as well as they should,” said Davies, who is looking forward to a first reunion since the summer with his Lions tour-mate Jonny Sexton, the Racing fly-half. “We showed we are competitive and they’re great fixtures when we come across the border. The Heineken is a great competition to be a part of and I think most people would have enjoyed that game.”
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