Friday, 30th November 2018 @ 19:45
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Harlequins moved to fourth in the Gallagher Premiership with a dramatic bonus-point victory against league-leaders Exeter Chiefs at The Stoop 28-26.
Tries from captain James Chisholm, Nathan Earle (2) and Joe Marchant gave the hosts the victory they needed and deserved on an electric night at their home.
Paul Gustard’s men had shown their intent early through positive running from Mike Brown and Gabriel Ibitoye and after six minutes took the lead when they forced a penalty in the Exeter 22 thanks to a well-placed box kick from scrum-half Danny Care. Fly-half James Lang stepped up to open his team’s account.
Then the visitors had their chance to go on the offensive and, after some prolonged pressure inside the Harlequins 22, which resulted in a penalty and kick to touch, number eight Matt Kvesic rumbled over to give his side the lead at the 15-minute mark. Despite the missed conversion from fly-half Joe Simmonds, Exeter now led by two.
Harlequins’ defence was as resolute as ever with Jack Clifford and Kyle Sinckler putting in some huge hits. Then, having turned the ball over in the middle of the field at a penalty, Lang kicked the ball deep into the Exeter 22 to give his team a fantastic attacking platform. Following a brilliant lineout catch and drive, Captain Chisholm broke off the back of the maul to reclaim the lead. Even without the extras, the men in quartered shirts led by three at the half hour mark.
Harlequins were now fully in the ascendancy and, after winning possession again on the half-way line, Care made a half break bringing his side into the Exeter 22 and nearly got the ball off to Lang but unfortunately missed. Quins still had possession however at the scrum and, after a strong, incisive run from Francis Saili, the centre offloaded to Brown who found Earle on the left wing to go over for his side’s second. Unable to add the extras, the home team still went into the break with a commanding eight-point lead.
The home team came out hard in the second half, keeping the ball in hand. Chiefs, however, managed to absorb the pressure and, following a wayward pass from Lang inside his own 22, Chiefs looked to exert more pressure on the Quins lineout. Again, following numerous defensive penalties, Chiefs crossed the whitewash through Captain Jack Yeandle. With the extras added, the deficit was narrowed to a single point at 13-12.
What followed was a period of frenetic of play with neither side able to get on top due to some outstanding defence. On the 54th minute, however, fullback Brown joined the line and delivered an exquisite kick from the Exeter 10-metre line that winger Earle was able to get on the end of for his second of the contest. With the conversion from Lang, Quins led by six.
Exeter looked to reply instantly, immediately pushing themselves into the Quins 22. At this stage Harlequins’ discipline became a factor, with numerous penalties awarded against them for dissent and hands in the ruck. Now with possession, the visitors sought to capitalise, and following another fantastic lineout catch and drive, Ollie Devoto smashed over the line taking three Quins defenders with him. After a TMO review, the try was awarded, with Lang then leaving the field after being knocked unconscious and Marcus Smith coming on. Quins still held a lead 20-19 but it was getting tense.
The arm wrestle continued in the centre of the park with neither side giving an inch. Both packs were carrying hard and straight but Quins looked more likely to smash holes, especially with Lewis Boyce and man of the match Dombrandt getting their hands on the ball. With the pressure building Exeter started to lose their composure at the ruck and on the 68th minute gave away a penalty which Smith stepped up to convert to make it 23-19.
Following the kick-off, the visitors seemed unable to exit their half due to prolonged Harlequins defensive pressure. With the tackles flying in from the home side, fly-half Gareth Steenson, who had come on to replace Joe Simmonds, threw a wayward pass which the Quins defence immediately latched onto. At a ruck inside the Exeter 22 Care spread the ball out to Saili who shifted it to Cadan Murley who handed off to Dombrandt who looked to power his way over in the right-hand corner but was stopped by the cover defence.
Despite losing the ball initially near the Chiefs’ five-metre, Quins’ tenacity allowed them to regain possession and, following a delicious grubber from Care, Joe Marchant scrambled over in the corner for his sixth try of the campaign on 77 minutes. Even with the conversion missed Quins were now beyond a converted score with less than two minutes to play.
But the match wasn’t over yet and, on 79 minutes, Exeter centre Ian Whitten ran in an interception try from half way. Steenson raced upfield to slot home the conversion making reducing the margin to two points with the clock ticking down.
The tension around The Stoop was palpable as the clock went into the red but Quins held firm to secure a memorable, bonus point victory which took them into the top four.
Harlequins are back in action at The Stoop against Benetton Rugby on Saturday 15th December in the European Challenge Cup.