Now we've seen it all. Down and out in January, Harlequins beat Exeter 40-38 in a Premiership finale at HQ that had us on the edge of our seats from start to finish
Harlequins are English champions after epic final win over Exeter
This is getting ridiculous. After the greatest Gallagher Premiership semi-final, today saw the greatest final you could ever wish to see. An 11-try maelstrom of points and attacking intent, punch and counter-punch, ended with Harlequins holding the trophy aloft in the early-evening Twickenham sunshine. Their 40-38 victory will live long in the memory.
“Harlequins have redefined how to play rugby,” said BT Sport’s Austin Healey. “A lot of people, including a lot of pundits, wondered if they could bounce back (emotionally) from last week. Sometimes you get a mindset and a belief that takes you past the physicality that your body can normally deliver.”
Leading 19-14 at the break, Quins were set back on their heels by a double strike from resurgent Chiefs and trailed 31-26 with just eight minutes remaining.
Then Marcus Smith, who had been sin-binned earlier after repeated offside offences by the Londoners, lured a moment’s hesitation out of Stu Townsend to put in Louis Lynagh for a try that Tom O’Flaherty might have stopped with a firmer tackle. Smith showed nerves of steel to convert from the touchline.
Soon after, Smith and Tyrone Green combined in the same right-hand corner to put Lynagh, 20, over again in front of his famous father, Wallaby Michael. When Smith landed another magnificent conversion, Quins led by two scores with three minutes left.
Incredibly, Quins failed to deal with the restart and Jannes Kirsten galloped into space to put in Stuart Hogg, a replacement for hamstring casualty Alex Cuthbert. Joe Simmonds converted but there was to be no miracle finish for Exeter. The Chiefs relinquish their English crown and Harlequins are champions for the second time.
Joe Marler, one of two starters from 2012 who lined up again today, was awarded Man of the Match. He, Wilco Louw and Scott Baldwin were a fiercesome arrowhead for Quins, gaining a scrum dominance that proved critical in a tight contest. Marler’s cover tackle on Hogg late in the match, when his lungs must have been burning, typified Quins’ spirit.
Quins showed from the start that they were uncowed by the reputation of the Chiefs pack, forging ahead after five minutes from a penalty try caused when Lions tourist Jonny Hill collapsed a fast-moving driving maul. Hill went to the bin but Exeter negotiated the next ten minutes and struck back when Jonny Gray crossed from a pick-and-go.
Loosehead Alec Hepburn followed suit, after Luke Cowan-Dickie shifted the point of attack from a tap penalty, and Chiefs seemed to have control at 14-7.
But control is not a word to associate lightly with a Harlequins match. The underdogs stormed back. Neglecting the chance to pick up easy points off the tee, they scored next when the impressive Louw twisted out of a goal-line challenge. Joe Marchant, taking the conversion with Smith still off the pitch, hit the post.
With the clock in the red, Quins showed their ambition by electing to take a scrum when they could have kicked an easy penalty to lead at the break. Alex Dombrandt charged on to a flat inside pass from Smith to score and Quins led 19-14 at the turnaround.
Exeter may question why, early in the second half, they didn’t kick the ball off when Cuthbert was a walking passenger after his hamstring injury. Quins counter-attacked and centre Andre Esterhuizen, who had a terrific, muscular game on his return from a lengthy suspension, scored in the corner. Smith converted for 26-14.
“If Harlem Globetrotters played rugby it would look a bit like this,” said Healey, swept up like the rest of us in the to-and-fro drama. “The speed with which Harlequins break through, the ability to get hands free, the support lines, it’s a joy to watch.”
Exeter, however, played their full part in making this the best Premiership final we have seen. Sam Simmonds, the competition’s Player of the Season, showed remarkable agility and strength to bounce out of a tackle and score his 21st league try of the campaign. It also broke the record for the most tries by a team in a Premiership season, taking Chiefs to 101 at that stage. The No 8 flies to South Africa on Sunday with the Lions.
Six minutes later, Cowan-Dickie’s offload put Joe Simmonds clear and Ollie Devoto was on hand to level the scores. Simmonds converted for 28-26 and with 15 minutes remaining slotted a penalty after Lynagh went offside.
By then Cowan-Dickie, another of Exeter’s British & Irish Lions, had gone off, briefly knocked out after a mistimed tackle on Dino Lamb. The relentless pace of the match took its toll, with Baldwin and Jack Nowell others to require lengthy treatment stoppages.
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Through it all was the marvellous noisy backdrop of a 10,000 crowd that included conspicuously vocal support from both sets of non-playing squad members.
It seemed that Quins, victors at Bristol last weekend from 28-0 down, couldn’t pull any more rabbits out of the hat. But that man Smith did his stuff, Lynagh got his double, and the final whistle triggered unconfined ecstasy in the Quins camp.
Nick Evans, the attack coach, was part of the cluster bouncing in a group hug. You wonder whether his work will prompt England boss Eddie Jones to get on the phone.
Quins were seventh in the table when they parted company with director of rugby Paul Gustard in January. They have ripped it up since then, setting the Premiership alight. They finished the match just one try behind Exeter’s record tally.
There has been so much heartache for people over the past 15 months. Days like this can make people forget their problems and relish sport like never before.
Exeter: Jack Nowell (Harvey Skinner 79); Alex Cuthbert (Stuart Hogg 45), Henry Slade, Ollie Devoto, Tom O’Flaherty; Joe Simmonds (capt), Jack Maunder (Stu Townsend 53); Alec Hepburn (Ben Moon 55), Luke Cowan-Dickie (Jack Yeandle 61), Harry Williams (Marcus Street 74), Jonny Gray, Jonny Hill (Sean Lonsdale 74), Jannes Kirsten, Richard Capstick (Don Armand 45), Sam Simmonds.
Tries: Gray, Hepburn, S Simmonds, Devoto, Hogg. Cons: J Simmonds 5. Pen: J Simmonds.
Harlequins: Tyrone Green; Louis Lynagh, Joe Marchant, Andre Esterhuizen (Ben Tapuai 79), Caden Murley (Luke Northmore 59); Marcus Smith, Danny Care; Joe Marler, Scott Baldwin (Joe Gray 58), Wilco Louw (Will Collier 58), Matt Symons, Stephen Lewies (capt, Dino Lamb 58), James Chisholm (Tom Lawday 74), Jack Kenningham, Alex Dombrandt.
Tries: Penalty try, Louw, Dombrandt, Esterhuizen, Lynagh 2. Cons: Smith 4.
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