Harlequins 21 Gloucester 12
Harlequins proved they can win the hard way at the Stoop, as a steely defensive display was enough to repel Gloucester on Friday night.
Perhaps it was the fact this round 11 match was Quins’ first Premiership game since round eight at the end of October. Or perhaps it was Gloucester’s almighty effort at the breakdown. But Quins stuttered their way to a 21-12 win which took them to third in the table.
Tabai Matson, Harlequins head coach, said: “We’ve had this game in our crosshairs and this is a critical game for us because if we win this we know we get a little bit of breathing space and we’ve been preparing for them. They were bloody good at the breakdown, jeepers, they are well coached there.”
Central to that titanic breakdown effort was Lewis Ludlow, who cut a frustrated figure after the game.
He said: “We didn’t let Quins get into their chaos, which is a good thing. But then we didn’t get into our attack, which was a bad thing.”
And that was the story of the game, highlighted by the fact Gloucester kicked 41 times to their opponents.
Harlequins, who at 4.14 have scored more tries than anyone in the league per 80 minutes, twice turned down the first chance for points within the first eight minutes by opting for the corner instead of taking the easy three.
While Gloucester have stolen more ball from the line-out than anyone else in the Premiership, there was nothing they could do to repel the Quins juggernaut and Danny Care burgled his way over for the opener, converted by Tommy Allan.
This was something Joe Marler was clearly not pleased with.
Matson laughed afterwards: “One of the things I really enjoyed was Joe Marler berated him all the way back to halfway saying, ‘You do not steal forwards’ tries, which is good. He needs that.”
The hosts made the visitors pay again on 14 minutes with the Quins lock Dino Lamb unleashing his inner Harlem Globetrotter with a no-look flick over his head before his second row touch in as many phases saw him crash over.
Harlequins were scoring at a point-a-minute, and all four penalties in the game had been conceded by the hosts - with Quins pumping it into the corner each time.
Gloucester could not make use of their first two lineouts near the Quins line, but the third time was Ben Morgan’s charm as the visitors bit back with a try of their own, converted out wide by Santiago Carreras despite the best efforts of Cadan Murphy to charge it down.
Whilst you might have expected free-flowing rugby and razor-sharp backs, the physicality on show was ferocious, particularly from Quins who spent 20 phases melting the Cherry and White charge with enormous double hits midway through the first half.
This was a pleasing aspect of the game for Matson, who said he was pleased to see Andre Esterhuizen “clobber a couple of guys”, something the head coach said has not seen too often this season from his centre.
It took until the 37th minute for the packed house at The Stoop to see the purring rugby synonymous with the Quins.
A blistering counter-attack, which featured five offloads, was finished off by their entertainer-in-chief Care and Allan’s conversion turned the teams around with the hosts leading 21-12.
Louis Rees-Zammit, usually Gloucester’s Formula One car, was clearly struggling with a tight hamstring, so his usual searing pace made way for some Rolls Royce touches.
Everything he touched sparkled, including a moment of magic in broken play where he picked up the ball in the backfield, pointed to the touchline, and popped a perfect cross-field kick to his fellow winger Jake Morris, who was only stopped by a Nick David miracle tackle.
For all their flair in attack, both teams showed ferocious aggression in defence, typified midway through the first half by Quins who spent 20 phases melting every Gloucester advance with enormous double hits.
Gloucester’s scavenging at the breakdown was tireless, and Billy Twelvetrees looked out to prove a point by carrying hard from 12 opposite the league’s gainline supremo Esterhuizen.
The third quarter of the game passed by with neither side throwing anything other than the odd jab, and the aimless kicking battle was won by absolutely nobody.
Morris had deja-vu on the hour when he thought he was going to saunter in from his own 22 after a smart intercept, but the Quins full-back David proved to be his nemesis again, hauling him into touch with another try-saver.
With 10 minutes to go, it appeared as though the game was on a loop.
Quins attack, Gloucester turnover, Gloucester kick. Repeat.
The only spark of the second half came on 77 minutes, when after more than a dozen blunt force trauma blows in midfield by Gloucester, a counter ruck spewed the ball out to Caden Murphy, who was able to stretch his legs for the first time.
He cut inside Rees-Zammit and must’ve thought he was strolling in for the bonus point try only to be hauled down by the flying Welshman he’d just left in his wake.
The Welsh winger finished the game in a heap on the sideline after a heavy airborne collision, which left Gloucester being forced to replace him with their only unused replacement – prop Harry Elrington.
Rees-Zammit was carried to the changing rooms, having spent almost 10 minutes laying on his back on the far side of the pitch getting his hip seen to.
After the game, Gloucester head coach George Skivington painted a more positive picture, saying: “I think he’s okay, actually. I’m not sure exactly what happened, but he seems okay in there [changing rooms] now. So, fingers crossed.”
Skivington attempted to put a positive spin on his team’s performance, saying he was happy with his side’s launch plays, but less happy with the phase play.
“It was two good teams going at each other, but it’s the first 10 minutes. I won’t make any excuses over that and we have to address that.”