Saturday, 27th April 2019 @ 17:00
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There was heartbreak for Harlequins at a blustery Sandy Park as they took league leaders Exeter all the way in a thrilling encounter, only to be denied at the death.
A Marcus Smith penalty in the last three minutes saw its course averted by the wind and Quins’ hopes of an important win on the road went with it as it drifted past the posts.
It was a fifth consecutive defeat for Harlequins but, as Head of Rugby Paul Gustard observed afterwards, there were many positives to be taken from the match – not least another losing bonus point.
Gustard’s team were the better team for 70 minutes of the match and, but for a careless first 10 minutes, could well have recorded a famous victory in the west country.
Harlequins got off to the worst possible start when Ollie Devoto went over after only two minutes. Quins had received from the kick-off and, having punted a high ball back into Exeter territory, were immediately under fire from an excellent Tom O’Flaherty break. The next phase found Dave Ewers who broke a tackle from Francis Saili and charged into the Quins’ 22, releasing Devoto to go over unchallenged. Joe Simmonds comfortably converted despite the swirling wind to make it 7-0.
Exeter continued to dominate the opening exchanges and they scored another try just nine minutes later. More powerful running from O’Flaherty almost saw the winger go over but Exeter were quick to support him and were soon camped on the Quins line and moments later scrum-half Nic White touched down under a pile of bodies. The wind defeated Simmonds this time but, with the score at 12-0 after only 11 minutes, it looked like a long afternoon was in store.
But Harlequins soon found their way into the match and completely dominated Exeter at the scrum, with Joe Marler and Kyle Sinckler excelling again. Quins earned a penalty at a scrum after 19 minutes which enabled Marcus Smith to kick to the Exeter 5-yard line.
The resulting lineout saw Quins pile on some pressure and Alex Dombrandt thought he had scored a try when good hands from Mike Brown and Ross Chisholm found him on the left wing to run in and score. But his foot had stepped on the line and the score was ruled out.
With the sun and wind behind them Exeter continued their tactic of sending high balls towards Brown and Chisholm to cope with at the back, which they did with aplomb and after 30 minutes Brown made a great break having made another wonderful take. His run towards the line looked to have put Quins in for a score but Sam Hidalgo-Clyne’s pass was intercepted on the line and the visitors were denied again.
Five minutes later another brilliant take from Brown set Quins off again and Francis Saili, Alofa Alofa and Charlie Walker combined well to create another Quins chance which Exeter again had to battle hard to defend against.
Finally, in the last minute of the half, Quins had their first points on the board when another penalty won at the scrum in front of the posts gifted Smith the chance to make it 12-3 at half-time.
Frustratingly Harlequins conceded another try early in the second half when a Phil Dollman break created a chance for Exeter to pile on more pressure. They were swiftly camped on the Quins line and Harry Williams was credited with the score after the referee Craig Maxwell-Keys had referred it to the TMO. Simmonds’ conversion was held up in the wind again but Exeter’s lead now looked formidable.
But from the kick-off Quins thought they had scored again – Game Changer Elia Elia who had just replaced Rob Buchanan capitalised on a spill at the restart and kicked through over the line. He was adjudged to have knocked on, though and Exeter were let off again.
Harlequins continued to dominate the match and Brown continued to threaten, taking the high ball in the wind and running hard at the hosts with Gabriel Ibitoye in support on the wing. After 54 minutes Quins went close again when Ibitoye collected another high ball, found Saili in the Centres who shipped it onto Semi Kunatani, another Game Changer who looked dangerous when he came on. Kunatani was held up this time.
Exeter were reduced to 14 men in the 61st minute when Ben Moon was penalised and shown a yellow at another scrum – and now Quins knew they had to take advantage.
In the 64th minute Quins got the breakthrough they deserved when another Saili burst, followed by a powerful drive from Stan South, put the visitors in a dangerous position under the posts. It was Hidalgo-Clyne who was able to scramble the ball against the posts to record Quins’ first try of the match and Hidalgo-Clyne’s first for the Club. The conversion was simple for Smith and Quins were back to within bonus point territory,
It was all Quins now and another brilliant clearance kick from Hidalgo-Clyne put the hosts under more pressure. From the resulting lineout Quins forced a penalty and Smith kicked deep for touch again. From the lineout Hidalgo-Clyne chipped through beautifully into a dangerous position and the ball was quickly recycled to the Scrum-half who found Saili who in turn released Charlie Walker on the right wing who went over for his first try of the season. Smith was unable to convert from wide on the right but it set up a tense final 10 minutes for the Chiefs.
Quins continued to dominate the closing stages and, when they were awarded a penalty with four minutes remaining Smith stepped up from about 30 yards and from a difficult angle on the left hand side. He set it out straight at the posts but the wind, that had been a major factor during the whole match, took the ball wide of the posts and Exeter were able to cling on to victory.
Heartbreak for Harlequins but plenty to feel confident about going into the remaining two games of the season with a play-off place still up for grabs.
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