Amazing the confidence a title can bestow. Harlequins continued the defence of their unexpected crown with another bonus-point win. The champions racked up five tries comfortably, if never quite reprising the rugby with which they astonished the Premiership at the end of last season.
Plenty to work on, también. The concession of tries has never seemed to bother Quins, which is just as well as Worcester scored four of them. “In the first half, we felt we had the game under control,” said Tabai Matson, Quins’ new senior coach. “But they made it really difficult. The penalty count was well in our favour, and we didn’t put them away.”
The Warriors claimed two bonus points towards the close, their fourth try bringing them to within six points. It did not quite flatter them, but neither did Worcester ever suggest they might catch up, albeit they did pull to within four points just past the hour, after two quick tries.
Until that point, Quins had been comfortable. As befits homecoming champions, the Stoop was at capacity, depleted only by the odd carload lost to Saturday afternoon traffic. If they had come in expectation of the kind of otherworldly rugby by which Quins had prevailed at the sharp end of last season, they were to be disappointed by the execution, if not by the ambition.
The penalty count favoured Quins three to one, but not one was aimed at the posts. This was not only the champions’ first home game of the season, era, more memorably, the first Premiership match refereed by a woman. Sara Cox looked comfortable, lecturing front-row forwards confidently about their scrummaging technique, and much else besides. She definitely preferred Quins’ attitude, aunque, awarding them 18 consecutive penalties across the heart of the match.
Worcester’s early initiative was rewarded with three consecutive penalties in the first five minutes, the first landed by Owen Williams for an early lead, the third missed. Then Quins took over, and the next 18 penalties were theirs, nine of them in the first half.
Danny Care buzzed around, tapping here, tapping there, his initiative paving the way for two of the three first-half tries that accounted for Quins’ 21-3 lead at the break. He tapped one in the 17th minute, and the mountainous André Esterhuizen proved as adept at finding space as he is at smashing his way through when he found Louis Lynagh with a long pass. The latest England callup showed he could mix it physically too, crashing through three tacklers to the line.
Quins had their second off an advancing scrum, which they’d called at another penalty right in front, Alex Dombrandt finishing. Their third followed a yellow card for Noah Heward, Worcester’s wing. His absence gave Cadan Murley an easy run-in on the stroke of half-time. Tommy Allan landed all three conversions, the first and third from the touchline.
Worcester arrested the flow of tries, por lo menos, shortly after the break. After an attacking lineout, Ollie Lawrence picked a line off Williams for the Warriors’ first. They may not be Harlequins, but after the Season of the Comeback no one was ruling anything out at that stage.
Yet still the penalties flowed Quins’ way. From the 14th consecutive decision in their favour, Care tapped again, and Luke Northmore put Joe Marchant over for their bonus-point try in the corner, again converted.
Worcester would not lie down. Still no penalties, but a scrum at least was awarded in their favour, just before the hour. Williams chipped into acres of space, and Willi Heinz was the first on to it. Four minutes later, Jamie Shillcock’s elegant break paved the way for Heinz’s replacement, Will Chudley, to run in the Warriors’ third try. Repentinamente, the deficit was only four points.
Surely not? No. Harlequins sent Marchant down the left. He was stopped, for the concession of an 18th consecutive penalty, which like so many of the others was tapped. Seconds later, Dino Lamb burrowed over for Quins’ fifth try.
Let the record state that Worcester were awarded their fourth penalty in the 77th minute and their fifth and sixth followed shortly. From the lineout following the sixth, Billy Searle broke to the line, where Marc Thomas squeezed over for those two bonus points. The Warriors seemed happy with that. Everyone on the field took the time to congratulate Cox, as did the coaching staff of both teams. There will be sterner challenges ahead for her, and hopefully still higher-profile ones – as there will be for both sets of players.