Harlequins travelled Southward along the M5 this weekend to face reigning Premiership and European Champions Exeter Chiefs at their home ground Sandy Park, as second hosted third in a top of the table clash.
Harlequins were off to a strong start, with the front row of Joe Marler, Scott Baldwin and Wilco Louw once again winning a penalty against the head (a familiar sight in recent months) to repel a famously imposing Exeter pack stationed inside Quins’ 22 in just the second minute, allowing the visitors to release pressure by kicking into Chiefs territory.
The home side continued to apply pressure, twice breaking clean through Harlequins’ defence only for the visitors’ scramble defence to force the Chiefs into conceding penalties at the breakdown as Quins’ back row unit looked to contest possession.
Thirteen minutes into the match following an opening period of excellent defence from the men in the Quarters, Harlequins did what they do best and turned defence into attack for their first score of the day.
Captain Stephan Lewies spotted that the ball was out at an Exeter ruck, pouncing to steal possession around the half-way mark. Quins ran through a series of tight offensive phases before breaking the Exeter defensive line via openside flanker Will Evans. Evans found fellow back row James Chisholm, who shipped on to the final member of the back row unit, Alex Dombrandt. Dombrnadt cleverly holds the ball before offloading to scrum-half Danny Care, who races in 30 metres to score the game’s opening try. Playing his 100th game for the Club, fly-half Marcus Smith converts to send Quins into a 7-0 lead.
Ten minutes pass and Exeter begin to find their footing following two penalties against Harlequins in quick succession. With Quins wing Tyrone Green penalised for taking out his opposite number in the air on the second occasion, the home side kicked to the corner and claimed their first try through a classic Exeter driving maul. Scrum-half Stuart Townsend was the man to dot down after Exeter broke from the set-piece. Joe Simmonds converted to bring the scores level.
Both sides began to show further glimpses of attacking promise throughout the rest of the first 40 without threatening the opposition’s line too fiercely, with both sides now settled into the game and Quins beginning to pressurise the home side into a number of mistakes.
Applied pressure came good for Quins in the end as Exeter were penalised for being offside within their own 22, directly in front of their own posts. Smith kicked the three points to return his side’s lead with less than six minutes to go until half time.
Returning Quins’ lead seven minutes from the break, Smith made Exeter pay for encroaching offside directly in front of their own posts and inside their 22. A second successful Smith kick and Quins lead 7-10.
Back in possession, Harlequins began to chip away once more, edging closer and closer towards Exeter’s line with the clock in the red. It’s a scrappy affair and scrum-half Danny Care attempts the drop goal for an additional three-pointer but can’t hit the target. Half time and Quins led the double champions 10-7 at the break.
54 minutes in and Harlequins found themselves in prime attacking position once again, with a scrum directly in front of Exeter’s posts inside their 22 after Chiefs fullback Facundo Cordero failed to gather a Smith clearing kick. Quins looked to attack off the back of a scrum deep inside Exeter territory. Care grubbers through and Wallaby centre Ben Tapuai is fastest to react and dots down, but the score is ruled out for a knock on from Dombrandt at the back of the scrum. Smith kicks the penalty instead, taking Quins to a 13-point lead with less than half an hour to play.
Harlequins were forced to finish the game defending immense pressure from the Chiefs, with the visiting side successfully repelling numerous advances for over ten minutes. However, Exeter returned to type and trundled their way up the pitch to claim another short-range score, this time through blindside Dave Ewers. Simmonds conversion took the home side into the lead with less than five minutes to play, with Exeter holding a one-point advantage.
Harlequins looked to stage a late comeback, racing up the pitch after centre Joe Marchant – now on the wing at this point after Cadan Murley was replaced by Luke Northmore in the second half - intercepted Exeter possession. Quins found themselves less than ten metres out and with momentum on their side, but it was the home team that went on to have the final word of the day, with back row Ewers coming up with a game-winning breakdown penalty to seal the victory for Exeter.
Final score: Harlequins 21-20 Exeter Chiefs
Tries: Care 13, Baldwin 46,
Conversions: Smith 13, 46
Penalties: Smith 30, 52
Exeter Chiefs scores
Tries: Townsend 22, Williams 61, Ewers 75
Conversions: J.Simmonds 22, 61, 75
Brown, Green, Marchant, Tapuai, Murley, Smith, Care, Dombrandt, Evans, Chisholm, Lewies, Symons, Louw, Baldwin, Marler
Gray, Garcia Botta, Collier, Young, Lawday, Landajo, Herron, Northmore
Cordero, Cuthbert, Whitten, Hendrickson, O’Flaherty, J.Simmonds, Townsend, S.Simmonds, Vermeulen, Ewers, S.Skinner, Kirsten, Williams, Innard, Hepburn
Taione, Moon, Street, Lonsdale, Capstick, Hidalgo-Clyne, H.Skinner, Devoto
Next match: Harlequins vs Gloucester. The Twickenham Stoop. Saturday, March 20. 14:00 kick-off.