Harlequins complete their redemption
Harlequins 30 Leicester 23:Conor O’Shea’s Harlequins side were crowned champions of England for the first time by defeating Leicester in a thrilling Twickenham final just three years after their reputation looked battered beyond repair.
Quins came to the party by refusing to abandon their free-flowing style, and such adventure was rewarded as skipper Chris Robshaw lifted the Aviva Premiership trophy.
Tries in each half by wing Tom Williams and Robshaw, accompanied by 20 points from outhalf Nick Evans’s trusty right boot, saw Quins become the sixth different club to be crowned Premiership champions after Newcastle, Leicester, Wasps, Sale and Saracens.
This time three years ago Quins were reeling from Bloodgate fall-out, a despicable cheating episode during a Heineken Cup quarter-final against Irish heavyweights Leinster.
Dean Richards, their rugby director at the time, received a three-year worldwide coaching ban for his role in instigating Williams chewing on a fake blood capsule in an attempt to get potential goalkicking matchwinner Evans back on the field after he had departed injured.
It was unquestionably English professional rugby’s most unsavoury episode, but Quins, led by their inspirational Irish rugby director O’Shea, have now turned things around spectacularly.
Evans kicked six penalties and a conversion, eclipsing his 19-year-old opposite number George Ford, whose 13-point haul included conversions of both Leicester tries by flanker Steve Mafi and centre Anthony Allen.
Leicester scored 10 unanswered points during the final quarter, but Quins had already done enough to consign the Tigers to their fifth defeat in eight successive Premiership final appearances.
Robshaw deservedly took man-of-the-match honours, and it was hard to question whether there has been a more influential player on the English rugby stage this season.
Leicester had their moments during a pulsating final, but Quins ultimately had too much ammunition during critical areas of the contest, and Tigers could not respond at the death on farewell appearances for wings Alesana Tuilagi and Horacio Agulla, plus lock George Skivington.
Quins made the early running, taking a second-minute lead when Evans found his range from 40 metres, and there was a vibrancy about their play that kept Leicester’s defence occupied.
Evans had a second penalty chance six minutes later. It hit the outside of the post and Tigers escaped but it was only a temporary reprieve.
Quins, their confidence undiminished despite the final’s high-pressure stakes, continued to attack Leicester with ball in hand, and such adventure was rewarded when Williams pounced after 10 minutes.
Lock George Robson made critical early headway before scrum-half Danny Care and fullback Mike Brown linked superbly, and Williams trotted over for a quality touchdown.
Evans’s conversion attempt bounced back off the post, but although Leicester replied with a Ford penalty, Quins remained a far more confident team as their exciting brand of rugby matched glorious sunny conditions.
Evans restored Leicester’s eight-point advantage through an angled strike from 30 metres, which was cancelled out by Ford five minutes later, although not before he had sent a longer kick well wide.
Despite stamina-sapping heat, there was no let-up in the tempo Quins looked to put on proceedings, but they
were architects of their own downfall nine minutes before the break.
Leicester prop Dan Cole snaffled possession from a lineout and found Mafi in support, who then sprinted 40 metres for an opportunist try that Ford converted.
Tigers’ 13-11 lead came arguably against the run of play, but an Evans penalty after Tigers number eight Thomas Waldrom was sin-binned for a technical offence edged Quins one point ahead by the break.
Another Evans penalty made it 17-13, and although Leicester enjoyed much more possession than in the game’s initial stages, their indiscipline handed the New Zealander a further scoring chance that he gratefully accepted.
Robshaw’s close-range score, accompanied by an Evans conversion and later penalty, left Leicester floundering before Allen sprinted over for a try that Ford improved.
Ford then kicked a penalty that ensured a nerve-shredding finish, and it became a case of how successfully Quins could close down the clock under growing pressure.
And they managed it without too much stress, sending their supporters into raptures.