It would be hard to imagine a more packed weekend of sport but the twists and turns of rugby union’s Premiership have latterly been unrivalled. To expect a finale as good as the semi-finals felt impossibly greedy and yet it still came to pass on a lovely sunlit evening as Harlequins, incredibly, were crowned English champions for the first time since 2012.
Exeter had looked more likely winners after a stunning second-half comeback from 26-14 down yielded two converted tries in the space of five minutes through Sam Simmonds and Ollie Devoto. They reckoned without the mightiest of Quins’ recoveries, a brace of tries from wing Louis Lynagh sealing a scarcely believable win. There have been some great finals but this was surely the best of them all.
There were Quins’ heroes all over the field but, ultimately, it was Marcus Smith who donned the cape to make the impossible dream come true. It was the fly-half’s passing and spatial awareness which ultimately floored Exeter, along with two nerveless touchline conversions which ensured a late Chiefs score from Stuart Hogg was too little too late.
From start to finish the tumult in the stands was also extraordinary, considering there were only 10,000 paying spectators present. What a shame the attendance was so restricted; there appear to be significantly more football, tennis, horse racing and motor racing fans in the upper reaches of government than club rugby diehards.
This game, 尽管, burst out of the stalls as smartly as anything at Newmarket. Quins knew they could not start as sluggishly as they had done in their semi-final and the decision to kick a penalty to the corner delivered instant dividends in the form of a penalty try after just five minutes and a yellow card for Jonny Hill for deliberately dragging down the close-range maul.
Chiefs, 尽管, had talked all week about not playing Quins’ game and regaining momentum at key moments. By the end of the first quarter they were back level, Hill having returned from the sin-bin just in time to bolster a familiar five-metre drive which, 这次, was finished off by his second-row partner Jonny Gray.
Hill is already going on the Lions tour and Gray must be firmly in the frame to fill the lock vacancy caused by Alun Wyn Jones’s cruel shoulder dislocation at Murrayfield. Warren Gatland will certainly look at the tape of this match and nod approvingly at the form of Sam Simmonds who, as ever, played as if he was wearing Nos 8 和 13 simultaneously. It took an excellent tackle from the influential Lynagh to prevent the flying Simmonds from scoring in the left corner and, slowly but surely, the pressure on Quins continued to build.
While the Londoners were gaining crucial scrummaging joy the black defensive wall in front of them was both bristling and unyielding. Some well-judged kicking out of hand was also serving Exeter well and once they reach the opponents’ 22 it is mighty hard to deny them. Admittedly there were fractions involved when Alex Hepburn drove low for the line beneath Jack Kenningham but the TMO was satisfied and Smith was also yellow carded for his side’s repeated infringements in the buildup. Quins, 尽管, had not come this far by accepting the seemingly inevitable. Down to 14 men they continued to hang tough and Wilco Louw proved unstoppable from a couple of metres. Was that a quick-thinking burst of ‘Swing Louw’ drifting around Twickenham on the light breeze?
With Smith off, it fell to Joe Marchant to attempt the conversion which ricocheted away off an upright. Surely that would mean Exeter going in ahead at the interval? Not so. Back came Quins again, opting for scrums rather than penalties beneath the shadow of the Exeter posts. The Chiefs were already stretched by the time the returned Smith drifted fractionally wider before feeding the thundering locomotive Alex Dombrandt on his inside. You can imagine England fancying that combination sooner rather than later.
The solution for Exeter was obvious enough: cut down on their double-figure first-half penalty count and look to wrest back control. Fat chance. Barely four minutes after the restart Quins were on the rampage again, a glorious flowing move ending with Andre Esterhuizen crashing over near the left corner flag. Smith’s fabulous conversion stretched Quins’ lead to 12 points but the best – and oodles of it – was still to come. To win both a semi-final and a final in the manner they did was genuinely extraordinary
These, remember, were rugby players still hammering away domestically in the final weekend of June. One-and-a-half seasons shoehorned into eleven months, Covid complications at every step and now this: a final staged so far into summer that Wimbledon’s strawberries are already in their punnets. If ever the game’s authorities should need to buy the players and coaches a thank-you pint it is this year.