Bath Rugby remained hot on the heels of Wasps thanks to a convincing 41-20 bonus-point victory over Harlequins as 2,700 home fans went home disappointed on their return to live rugby.
Having kicked off just as Wasps secured an impressive 25-18 victory over dethroned champions Saracens, all eyes were on the affair at the Twickenham Stoop thanks to the return of supporters - and with them something close to a passionate atmosphere.
Their loyal support was rewarded by a rapid start from Quins, with Joe Marchant scoring early to help the hosts build an early lead. But it did not take long for Bath to fight their way back into the contest, with Ruaridh McConnochie scoring tries either side of Elliot Stooke’s effort from close range, with replacement prop Lewis Boyce securing the bonus point with a late interception try after Harlequins’ Martin Landajo briefly gave faint hope of a late comeback, with fellow substitute James Lang crossing in vain with the final play of the match.
For Bath, the impressive win keeps them one point behind fourth-placed Wasps in the battle for the play-offs, which look set to go ahead without Harlequins and, it seems, any representatives from the capital for the first time in the Premiership era.
Two overriding factors put the opening exchanges of this clash into the shade. The first was the welcome return of fans to the Premiership, with 2,800 Harlequins supporters granted access to the Stoop as part of the government’s pilot scheme to reopen stadia across the country. Quins are hopeful that this will not be the only game in the coming weeks where fans are let in with the club keen for another crack at the whip before a full return is announced, but for the first time since the game restarted last month, this contest actually felt like it meant something.
The second happened 14 miles away, at Allianz Park, where England captain Owen Farrell was shown the first red card of his career for a nasty high tackle on Wasps’ Charlie Atkinson. Talk quickly spread around the Stoop along with accommodating smirks from the home fans, not forgetting their fierce rivalry with the relegated side, and while the debate started over how long Farrell will be banned for, Quins quietly got up and running rather quickly.
Fly-half Brett Herron missed an early opportunity at goal to put the hosts in front in the opening minute, but it wasn’t long before Quins were ahead. Bath’s ill-disciplined start saw them ship four early penalties inside their own red zone, and the one that Herron decided against kicking at goal resulted in the opening try. From a lineout drive, scrum-half Danny Care creatively chipped high above the defensive line from the base of the maul, giving Marchant the chance to challenge for possession, and after taking it at the second time of asking the centre crashed over the line and managed to ground the ball to score.
Herron’s successful conversion was followed by Rhys Priestland’s first successful effort at the posts, though Bath’s early struggles to steady their scrum allowed the Quins stand-off to restore the seven-point lead, which quickly became 10 in the 23rd minute after a inch-perfect tackle from England prop Joe Marler on the Bath openside Miles Reid produced a holding-on penalty.
By the first drinks break immediately after the penalty, Quins were looking good value for their lead, but it immediately started to unravel. From the kick-off, Matt Symons failed to collect the restart and McConnochie reacted first to collect the loose ball and beat opposite man Chris Ashton to the corner to score with an excellent one-handed try. Priestland added the extras to level the scores, and just a handful of minutes later the West Country side were into the lead.
A dropped pass from Care allowed Bath flanker Josh Bayliss to gather and flick a pass out the back of his hand to scrum-half Ben Spencer, and although his attempted chip and chase was touched down by Mike Brown, Bath had the five-metre scrum that would lay the platform for their second try. A series of pick-and-goes and one-out drives eventually breached the defence when Stooke powered over, and Priestland’s conversion was followed by another penalty when Quins were caught offside to put Bath 23-13 to the good.
Having dominated the second quarter of the contest, Bath went about converting their dominance into a healthy points advantage - albeit without Anthony Watson as the England full-back was replaced at the break with a leg injury - and Quins simply could not stop them once the visitor’s had their tails up. It took just three minutes for the third try to arrive and it came courtesy of excellent play from two England hopefuls. Wriggling his way out of contact, centre Cameron Redpath freed his hands to release McConnochie and the former sevens star raced away from the flailing defence before stepping inside the covering Herron to score his second.
Priestland added his fourth penalty of the day to increase the lead to 18 points as the contest started to drift, and although replacement scrum-half Landajo’s try regained the interest of the returning fans, former Quins prop Boyce put the game to bed when he picked off Tom Lawday’s attempted pass to Brown and chugged his way over to the delight of the winning side.
Though the result was beyond doubt, there was enough time left remaining for Tom Foley to send both Bath hookers to the sin-bin, with replacement Jack Walker quickly followed by Tom Dunn for repeated infringements, and the numerical advantage allowed replacement Lang to cross for a consolation.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies