On Sunday afternoon, Harlequins put in a performance at Stade Ernest-Wallon that delighted neutrals and fans alike. Toulouse, who so ruthlessly overpowered the London club just last week, were never out of contention but were eventually bested by a display full of guile, muscle and skill.
Toulouse are a club among the royalty of European rugby. They have won the Heineken Cup more times than any other club (four), reaching at least the semi-finals in ten out of 16 tournaments. A recent report made them comfortably the richest club in Europe in terms of revenue, generating over €30m each season, allowing them to finance a squad overflowing with international experience. To beat them when they are on the road is a stretch even for Europe’s top clubs and to beat them at home in France is nigh on impossible.
Harlequins, though, ignored their opponents’ pedigree and their balance books. They ignored the fact that they themselves were without a number of significant squad members (including the talent and physicality of Maurie Fa’asavalu, Joe Marler, Jordan Turner Hall and George Lowe). Perhaps most importantly they ignored last week’s defeat and overcame the French giants in one of the most absorbing European games this season.
Special mention must go to fly-half Nick Evans, perennially one of the Premiership’s most consistent performers. Missing only one kick at goal all afternoon, he contributed 16 points, including two crucial penalties in the final ten minutes where Harlequins were down to 14 men. One consummate grubber kick set Mike Brown on the way to his first score, and a clever (if slightly fortuitous) kick ten minutes later created the confusion that lead to Gray’s try.
For some Englishmen in this Harlequins side, it is hard not to put their impressive season to date in the context of a national call-up. Mike Brown’s performance was symptomatic of his early season form and might well put him in the frame for England’s fullback jersey. His well-taken brace of tries brought his season total to ten, while two try-saving tackles also caught the eye.
Chris Robshaw also enjoyed another impressive game, putting in an industrious defensive display of eleven tackles (more than anyone else on the pitch, including his vaunted opposing captain Thierry Dusautoir). He carried well around the ruck and demonstrated handling skills not often possessed by forwards, most notably feeding a slick pass to his scrum half in the lead up to Quins’ second try. For Robshaw, an England call-up seems inevitable.
Lock George Robson has now also put himself in contention for England. He was Quins’ go-to-man in the lineout and with nine tackles (and a timely intervention with his hand that seemingly denied William Servat a certain try) he contributed more defensively than any other tight-five forward. His 19 metres carried were also very useful for the London club. If he can continue his form England will find him hard to ignore.
Even 33-year-old Nick Easter, supposedly in the twilight of his England career enjoyed a magnificent game. It was his spectacular break and kick ahead that ultimately lead to Brown’s first, while his direct running and soft hands led to the fullback’s second.
The national aspect aside, though, Harlequins’ victory was very special within itself. In a competition that has by and large yielded only disappointment for English clubs, Sunday afternoon was a truly refreshing spectacle. The Quins’ defensive line-speed was world class; and even when Toulouse managed to break through, the English club scrambled with commitment usually reserved for cup finals. Meanwhile, Brown and Evans brilliantly controlled the Londoners’ attack, which was highly intelligent and exciting to watch.
This victory puts Harlequins in a position with qualification within their grasp. Whether they will progress beyond the quarter-finals is another issue entirely. One performance does not necessarily make them title contenders, but it certainly enhances their European credentials. Toulouse did miss kicks at goal, and they butchered overlaps, but take nothing away from Harlequins who nonetheless displayed all of the graft, creativity and unabated self-belief needed to succeed in Europe.