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Leicester Tigers 35 Harlequins 29
If Eddie Jones was not displaying a smug grin beneath his facemask at Welford Road, then he should have been. In the battle of the English fly-halves, it was the England head coach’s incumbent, George Ford of Leicester, who outplayed the fashionable pretender, Marcus Smith of Harlequins, as the Tigers won their first Premiership game in four – with a bonus point, too.
Harlequins have made a habit of snatching games from the jaws of defeat, and they nearly managed another here. After coming second for most of the match, the visitors – who secured two bonus points – mounted a sterling late rally with three second-half tries, almost clinching a winner at the death. Replacement wing Kini Murimurivalu was Leicester’s saviour, winning a holding-on penalty to seal a deserved victory and elevate the Tigers up to sixth in the Premiership table.
Harlequins remain in the mix for a play-off spot but at times it was not evident which of these two sides was hunting one. The visitors sit comfortably in fourth, as they did before kick-off, but they were often unable to cope with Leicester’s muscular intensity on a mizzly afternoon in the East Midlands. Harlequins’ coach, Nick Evans, rued the first-half lethargy.
“We are disappointed with the result,” he said. “When we reflect on the bus home we could look at it as a very important two points. We looked like nicking it again but we gave ourselves too much to do. Leicester were brilliant in that first half.... we were a little off the pace.”
The Tigers scored two tries in the opening 10 minutes and four before half-time. Few in world rugby can time a pass like Ford and so it proved for his side’s first try, where he delayed subtly to pick out Matt Scott – outstanding all match – in his blind spot, with the centre carving through.
Few in world rugby, too – certainly among front-rowers – carry as brutally as Ellis Genge. The loosehead scored Leicester’s second – and the first of his two tries – from a pick-and-go, bulldozing his way through Harlequins.
Of Genge, Leicester head coach, Steve Borthwick, said: “His performances this last month or two have been outstanding, Off the field he has been immense, raising the standards, the energy. A lot will be said about his tries but his defence is where he has really improved of late.”
Although the visitors struggled to match the power of Leicester’s loose runners – alongside Genge, No 8 Jasper Wiese and wing Nemani Nadolo terrorised the Harlequins midfield – they did manage two first-half tries.
Smith fizzed a pass to full-back Tyrone Green, who offloaded delicately to Joe Marchant. He found his wing partner Nathan Earle with a silken offload on the inside and Earle’s finish was elementary.
But neither team could deal with the opposing driving maul, the area from which the next two scores came. After a majestic Ford touch-finder, hooker Tom Youngs surged over from close range.
Harlequins followed suit for their second, except the punishment for Leicester was more severe. Prop Dan Cole was sent to the sin bin for dragging down a maul, and referee Luke Pearce awarded a penalty try.
Cole’s sin-bin signalled Leicester’s most tempestuous period, but Harlequins were not sharp enough to capitalise. It was the officials’ most tempestuous period, too. Earle was yellow-carded for a deliberate knock-on to a potentially scoring pass from Scott to Nadolo – the penalty try ruled out on the basis that the 135kg Nadolo would have been stopped by the 89ks Green – but the TMO had spotted a dodgy clearout from Genge.
Pearce decided that Genge had made “accidental” contact with the head of flanker Jack Kenningham – whose bonce was only a foot off the ground, shielding the ball – and so the loosehead also saw yellow. Remarkably, however, Earle rejoined the fray as Genge’s clumsy clean-out occurred before the wing’s slap-down. In rugby, two wrongs do result in a right.
With Leicester down to 13, it was on a plate for Harlequins’ laissez faire style to thrive, but the visitors could not get a foothold. Tigers won the sin-bin period with Scott Baldwin’s ruck indiscretion giving Ford a kickable penalty.
All hell broke loose as Leicester, back to 15, secured their bonus point. Nadolo bowled down Smith’s channel, skittling Harlequins pins as he went, before Genge flattened James Lang in midfield, carrying the Tigers up to the Harlequins line. After Tom Youngs recycled, Genge finished what he had started.
Ford stretched the lead to 20 points after another Harlequins ruck infringement before the visitors' rearguard began with their third try, which was wonderfully prosaic even if it lacked the poetry of their recent play. The visitors endlessly recycled and created acres of space for Marchant to collect a well-judged Smith cross-kick, which the fly-half converted as he grew into the match.
Two more tries followed with Harlequins smelling blood. Midfield decoys allowed Green to exploit wide space and put Earle in for his second, before more impressive work from Green, in partnership with scrum-half Martin Landajo, gave centre Luke Northmore the space to score.
As Harlequins pressed - Leicester’s cushion now just six points - Zack Henry’s penalty and Murimurivalu’s heroics saw the Tigers home. They travel to Twickenham for next Friday’s European final with momentum, with hopes of emulating the Foxes’ triumph.
Scoring sequence: 5-0 Scott try (4 mins); 7-0 Ford con (5); 12-0 Genge try (10); 14-0 Ford con (11); 14-5 Earle try (13); 19-5 T Youngs try (19); 21-5 Ford con (20); 21-12 penalty try (24); 24-12 Ford pen (32); 29-12 Genge try (40); 32-12 Ford pen (44); 32-17 Marchant try (53); 32-19 Smith con (54); 32-24 Earle try (71); 35-24 Henry pen (74); 35-29 Northmore try (76). HT: 29-12
Leicester: F Steward; G Porter, M Scott, D Kelly, N Nadolo (De Bruin 35, Nadolo 37, Murimurivalu 60); G Ford (Henry 64), B Youngs (Wigglesworth 54); E Genge (De Bruin 51), T Youngs (c) (Clare 51), D Cole (Heyes 51), H Wells, C Green, G Martin, T Reffell (C Brink 57), J Wiese (H Liebenberg 48).
Yellow card: Cole (24); Genge (27)
Harlequins: T Green; N Earle (Edwards 74), L Northmore, J Lang ((Tapuai 40), J Marchant; M Smith, D Care (Landajo 64); J Marler (Garcia Botta 65), S Baldwin (Gray 65), W Louw (Collier 65), M Symons, S Lewies (c), T Lawday (Chisholm 50), J Kenningham (Lamb 56), A Dombrandt.
Referee: L Pearce