The comeback kings come back. Of course they do. Harlequins, given all the assistance they could have asked for by Alec Hepburn’s red card on the stroke of half-time for a clear-out of Joe Marler, did their level best to butcher their advantage. In typical style, they prevailed at the death with a try by André Esterhuizen and the conversion by Marcus Smith – from the touchline, obviously.
This was a rerun of the final last season across the road but Exeter had looked as if they were going to rewrite the script with a gutsy effort in adversity.
Quins had missed opportunity after opportunity, their lineout also letting them down time and again. So they waited until the penultimate minute, as if deliberately, when Smith’s cross-field kick gave Esterhuizen a clear run to the puddle in the corner, just where a 15th defender might have been. Smith nailed the kick to confirm his penchant for the big moments.
“That ability to kick from the tee, you don’t coach that,” said Tabai Matson, Quins senior coach. “That’s locked in. But it’s the execution, not just from him but the whole team – he’ll be wanting to be way more accurate.”
A more careful team might indeed have been clear by the hour given the same circumstances. The game was in the balance at a try apiece, as half-time approached. The increasingly impressive Luke Northmore had scored an early try after Joe Marchant’s fast feet had tested the visitors, but his opposite number, Henry Slade, replied a few minutes before the break, looping round Joe Simmonds.
So far, so even, but then came the key moment. There were shades of Brian O’Driscoll and the Lions tour of 2005. Unlike then, though, a shade of red was flourished from the referee’s pocket. Sam Simmonds and Hepburn went to clear out Marler, each focusing on a leg. Before he knew it, Marler was upside down, then landing on his head.
There is no doubt it looked ugly. The decision to send off Hepburn was relatively straightforward, even if the clear-out happened so quickly and in conjunction with another player.
Exeter took the decision to withdraw the winger Facundo Cordero, which was an equally sound decision, given the rain of the second half.
The substitution would be felt keenly, however, by Quins as much as anyone. Twice in the third quarter his absence was exposed, but twice the opportunity squandered. Tyrone Green represents as much as anyone the brilliance with which Quins took the title last season. This, though, was not his finest hour.
Cadan Murley was put away down the left and fed Green on the inside. Not only was the full-back run down, but his pass missed both players in the clear outside him, with another screaming on his inside.
A few minutes later, he flung another pass into touch when finding Marchant with the line at his mercy may have been the easier task.
Exeter survived that third quarter and soon they worked their way, via a couple of penalties, to where they are happiest, deep in opposition territory. Quins stymied their first attempts to drive lineouts, then turned them over, then fumbled their own lineout into touch.
So Exeter had another chance. Down to 14 they may have been, but 12 players joined the maul to drive Jack Innard over with less than a quarter of an hour remaining.
Joe Simmonds missed the conversion from out wide. The lead was five.
If there is one team you want to be more than a score clear of these days it is Harlequins. If there is one fly-half. A try in the corner is not a problem. Smith almost prefers it that way.