Joe Marchant stars as Harlequins complete stunning comeback to keep title dream alive

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Joe Marchant stars as Harlequins complete stunning comeback to keep title dream alive - CAMERASPORT VIA GETTY IMAGES
Joe Marchant stars as Harlequins complete stunning comeback to keep title dream alive - CAMERASPORT VIA GETTY IMAGES

Harlequins 28 Gloucester 24

Joe Marchant spurred Harlequins to another stirring comeback at Twickenham as the reigning Premiership champions piled up 21 unanswered second-half points, putting them on course for a mouth-watering semi-final against Saracens and leaving Gloucester’s top-four hopes in peril.

Marchant, a bright spot in a difficult Six Nations for England this season, will not attend this week’s training camp. However, he scored two tries to remind Eddie Jones of his worth with a busy and balanced performance in this showpiece fixture.

Tabai Matson, the Harlequins senior coach, admitted he was “out of the loop” with regard to Marchant’s England omission. Even so, he hailed a “phenomenal” display from the 25-year-old.

“Against France, who went on to win the Six Nations, I thought he was the best player on the field,” said Matson of Marchant. “For us, he is so reliable – one of our best.”

Gloucester had forged a 24-7 advantage, with Ollie Thorley and Freddie Clarke excellent, before fading in warm sunshine. A “proud” George Skivington stressed that his team “will go hard whatever happens” when they host Saracens in two weeks. Northampton host Newcastle Falcons, and must be favourites to sneak through.

“A few of our lads hadn’t even seen Twickenham Stadium, let alone played here,” said Skivington, the Gloucester head coach. “I thought they dealt with it well. We’re obviously gutted, because we got ourselves in position [to win].”

The 36-man England squad announced on Tuesday, featuring precisely none of their players, had irked Gloucester supporters. This was a chance for the Cherry and Whites to deride that selection and – more pertinently – produce another twist in this captivating play-off race.

Turnovers littered a manic start. Cadan Murley, himself unfortunate not to receive an England call-up, forced a breakdown penalty directly from kick-off. Marcus Smith nudged to the corner but Gloucester held firm.

Thorley lifted the volume with a 40-metre surge and Gloucester notched the first points. They arrived from a familiar source. Clarke rose at the tail of a close-range line-out and Ben Morgan benefitted from a rumbling maul. Adam Hastings converted.

Harlequins’ response reflected the game’s harum-scarum nature. Marchant was tripped by a Louis Rees-Zammit tap-tackle and Chris Harris pilfered possession. However, Ruan Ackermann’s offload was intercepted by Danny Care. After a Simon Kerrod charge, Alex Dombrandt cut a characteristic angle.

Harlequins were not level for long. Santiago Carreras slipped through around the fringes and linked up with Clarke, who showed superb pace to outstrip Louis Lynagh. The lock’s Superman dive delighted the travelling Gloucester fans.

Freddie Clarke dotted down for the visitors - PA
Freddie Clarke dotted down for the visitors - PA

Marchant recovered the restart and almost tied things up again. Gloucester survived, though, and were back in the Harlequins’ 22 to begin the second quarter. Joe Marler, an early replacement for Kerrod, chopped down Ackermann and then helped muscle a scrum penalty. Moments later, his jackal frustrated Gloucester.

Huw Jones, re-joining Glasgow Warriors at the end of this season, is in fine form and found space with a deft chip. Gloucester were proving tough to crack, though. Georgia international Giorgi Kveseladze, at inside centre instead of Mark Atkinson, was impressive. Carreras was the next to register a breakdown steal. That set up a promising platform and a slick try resulted.

Lewis Ludlow was the key man. Gloucester’s skipper, who captained England on this ground last July, took the line-out and then arced into midfield. On the second phase, he latched on to an inside pass from Hastings and carved through Harlequins. Harris was on hand and held off two covering defenders.

By this stage, Gloucester’s momentum looked irresistible. On the back of a box-kick from Charlie Chapman, Val Rapava-Ruskin made ground and Clarke pierced the line. Hastings extended the lead to 24-7 with a neat drop-goal.

Despite their penchant for turning the tables, Harlequins needed inspiration. Their scrum was dominant, and earned an opportunity, but a trademark inside pass from Smith to Dombrandt was spilled. Gloucester headed into the changing rooms with a 17-point cushion that their greater urgency and accuracy deserved.

While they did demonstrate urgency to start the second period, Harlequins’ own accuracy remained sketchy. A botched wrap-around move allowed Thorley to bolt out of the Gloucester 22.

Marchant’s cover tackle was brilliant and, although the outside centre then chucked a pass into touch after Care had scurried up the middle, the pair combined more successfully to rejuvenate Harlequins. Care’s grubber from a five-metre scrum sat up and Marchant finished. Smith added the extras and the deficit was 10.

Gloucester, who lost Morgan and Harris to injury, appeared to steady themselves until they presented an opening. Carreras struck a long-range drop-goal attempt that fell wide and was gathered by Jones, whose clearance was carried into touch by Hastings.

Harlequins launched from the edge of the opposition 22. Jones punched a hole before Smith and André Esterhuizen imparted width for Marchant bag a second. Now all impetus belonged to Harlequins.

Rees-Zammit was sin-binned for a deliberate knock-on. Harlequins swept from flank to flank and, eventually, Smith, Marchant and Jones worked an overlap for Murley. Another comeback was complete.

Marchant nearly landed a hat-trick at the death, yet could not quite control Care’s dink. Fittingly, given it had been a foundation of another thrilling win, a powerful Harlequins scrum had the final say. Dreams of retaining the title are alive.

Match details

Scoring: 0-5 Morgan try, 0-7 Hastings conversion, 7-5 Dombrandt try, 7-7 Smith conversion, 7-12 Clarke try, 7-14 Hastings conversion, 7-19 Harris try, 7-21 Hastings conversion, 7-24 Hastings drop-goal, 12-24 Marchant try, 14-24 Smith conversion, 19-24 Marchant try, 21-24 Smith conversion, 26-24 Murley try, 28-24 Smith conversion

Harlequins: H Jones (T Allan, 76); L Lynagh, J Marchant, A Esterhuizen, C Murley (N David, 70): M Smith, D Care; S Kerrod (J Marler, 23), J Walker, W Louw, M Symons (Lewies 65-75), H Tizard, S Lewies (M Jurevicius, 56), T Lawday (W Evans, 51), A Dombrandt

Replacements not used: J Els, L Gjaltema,

Gloucester: S Carreras (B Twlelvetrees, 65); L Rees-Zammit, C Harris (T Seabrook, 45), G Kveseladze, O Thorley; A Hastings, C Chapman (B Meehan, 65); V Rapava-Ruskin (H Elrington, 48), S Socino (J Singleton, 62), K Gotovtsev (F Balmain, 51), F Clarke, M Alemanni, R Ackermann, L Ludlow, B Morgan (J Reid, 43)

Referee: C Maxwell-Keys (RFU)

Yellow card: Rees-Zammit, 65

Attendance: 47,421

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