Friday, 19th January 2018 @ 00:00
Harlequins ended their European Rugby Champions Cup campaign bottom of Pool 1 as they fell 16-7 away to La Rochelle in France.
A dominant forward display from the home side helped them score a penalty and two tries in the first half, on route to a 13-0 lead at the break.
Harlequins will be proud of their second half display as they put in tough defensive effort, and scored a try of their own through Danny Care, but it wasn’t enough as a second penalty to La Rochelle helped them close out a 16-7 win.
Earlier, Harlequins arrived at Stade Marcel-Deflandre looking to finish their campaign with back-to-back wins after last weekend’s memorable comeback over Wasps.
Already without key members of their tight five, with Joe Marler suspended and Will Collier and James Horwill injured, Harlequins were struck with two more blows before five minutes was even up on the clock. First, Kyle Sinckler was withdrawn pre-match after failing a late fitness test, before George Merrick picked up an early knock as well. A tough fixture made even tougher for the Londoners.
The giant La Rochelle pack seized their opportunity and put their opposite numbers under pressure by dominating the set piece and pounding away at the defence when they had ball in hand. Within the opening quarter they were awarded a half dozen penalties at the scrum and breakdown but it only cost the Londoners three points as their defence held out.
Finally, with 21 minutes gone the Frenchman got the try they deserved. After winning yet another penalty they opted for a scrum five metres out and a few phases later Pierre Aguillon was on hand to cross in the corner and give his side an 8-0 lead.
It was a dominant display from La Rochelle, though the Harlequins supporters did have the occasional moment to cheer for as Marcus Smith and James Lang combined nicely to Quins close, before Smith and Tim Visser got them even closer only for the French defence to scramble and clear.
While it was performance built on pure power for much of the encounter it was some slick handling that set up the second La Rochelle try as quick passes on the left wing freed Kini Murimurivalu to go over and make it 13-0 in the 37th minute.
Before the half was up a counter attack got them close again only for Harlequins to hold them out right in front of their own sticks. Referee George Clancey eventually blowing for halftime with Quins trailing 13-0.
Behind 13-0 in a dead rubber, Harlequins had nothing to play for other than pride so they will be immensely proud of their second half performance.
Immediately out of the break the Londoners got themselves on the front foot led by Danny Care who was driving up the tempo with quick ball. And it was the scrum half who got them on the scoreboard with a trademark snipe from close range. Smith converted and suddenly it was game on with only six points separating the sides and 35 minutes still to play.
From the restart La Rochelle’s kick-off didn’t make it the required ten metres and Quins set up a scrum on halfway, only for the powerful French forwards to turn them over and win a penalty of their own when Care took out a man without the ball. Alexis Bales kicked his second penalty of the match, in very tough conditions, and his side led 16-7.
There was a number of travelling Harlequins supporters within the 16,000 in attendance and they would have appreciated the spirit shown in the final half hour. While neither side troubled the scorers, it was a gutsy display from Quins as the undermanned side fought til the end and even went closest to a final try via James Chisholm.
There were still mistakes, especially at the set piece, but John Kingston’s side made tackle after tackle as the enormous La Rochelle outfit continued to bang it up the middle of the park. La Rochelle also impressed defensively, in particular when they turned over a goal line stand from Quins.
In the end they held on to win 16-7 as they topped Pool 1 to cap off an impressive debut Champions Cup group stage.
Meanwhile Harlequins will be disappointed in their European campaign that felt like it was over early but they now turn their attention to the Anglo-Welsh Cup where they are in a great position to challenge for silverware, unbeaten through the opening two rounds.