Following a 39-29 win for Harlequins over the Sharks in their Champions Cup fixture, here’s our five takeaways from the match at the Twickenham Stoop.
The top line
Crackerjack. Hats off to two brilliant rugby teams who came to south west London just to have fun in front of 14,000 early risers and put on an absolute showcase of running rugby, with Harlequins securing their place in the round of 16 as they chalked up an impressive bonus-point win.
At the heart of their display was a consummate performance of the art of the openside from Will Evans, up against one of the world’s best in the shape of Springbok skipper, Siya Kolisi. Five turnovers came from Evans’ industry, including two that resulted in tries, but the ongoing presence of the Quins seven saw a day of lighting quick rucks from their pack to feed the fast ball addiction of Marcus Smith and his pacy backs.
There were some moments of absolute magic from the hosts. The speed of passing in the Quins backline for the try from Cadan Murley, the Nick David solo try and the former’s all-round excellence, and for Sharks, the work of Aphelele Fassi and Lukhanyo Am to create the opening try was a joy to see.
It was an outstanding game of rugby and one where both sides played a significant part in the day’s entertainment. The Sharks will be delighted that they walked away with their try bonus point courtesy of the outstanding visitor, Fassi, a point that should secure a home tie in the next round.
Gas to burn
The Harlequins backline is a joyous thing, but their seemingly chaotic way is based upon an ability to support their carriers and to react in the transition from defence to attack. Marcus Smith was his usual brilliant self, but the performances around him, from the relentless power of Andre Esterhuizen to the silky running of star of the match Nick David, were rooted in the simple Quins DNA of fast ruck, fast reaction and fast legs.
Factor in too the comfort of their big men on the ball; at times it was hard to work out if it was Esterhuizen, Alex Dombrandt or Stephan Lewies smashing it down the inside centre channel.
Nick Evans is a master at coaching transition reaction, and if today is anything to judge by, England have an absolute gem of an attack coach, provided the forwards can provide the pace of ball his plans rely upon.
For all of Quins’ brilliance in the backline, without pace of ball from set-piece and breakdown they have no platform from which to launch their big guns. Coach Tabai Matson was at pains to point out the focus on the set-piece during the week, getting pace into lineout set-up and execution, ruck ball below two seconds and above all, nullifying the Sharks’ scrummage via quick ins and outs, a unit that has won more penalties in the URC than any other.
The ruck collisions were brutal, but surprisingly Quins edged them with Irne Herbst and Lewies brilliant in power and clear. In the lineout, Lewies even stole one off the great Eben Etzebeth, one handed and athletically. With Dombrandt also outstanding at the tail, Harlequins’ forensic dissection of a world-class set-piece was the canvass on which this win was painted.
Don't take your eyes off this match for a second 👀
— Heineken Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) January 21, 2023
For those with a deep-rooted hatred of the caterpillar ruck, referee Nika Amashukeli appears to share your views. In the last moments of the first half, Danny Care set his ruck men, with Joe Marler bound on as the last man. As the Sharks disrupted the ruck, Marler became disconnected with only a long arm and no shoulder bind connecting him to the breakdown, thus putting all of the Sharks onside as the ball is now deemed to be out.
Eben Etzebeth slid up side and once it was clear that Marler was no longer part of the ruck, he asked the referee for permission, who replied, correctly, that it was out. Big Eben needed no second invitation and scooped the ball up and galloped gently to the line to nip over for an opportunistic but perfectly legal try. The Stoop might not have agreed, but Amashukeli nailed the call, an outstanding and brave decision from a world-class official who had another impressive outing.
The look ahead
Harlequins will be thrilled with this win and with the round of 16 not scheduled until March 31 they know that they’ll have an opportunity to play in the spring conditions they relish. Murley remarked post match how much they crave the sun and solid ground to assist their style and, knowing they’ll almost certainly be playing away from home, they will need all the assistance they can get. The only concerns they might have is their penalty count under extreme pressure and maintaining a level of width in defence, two areas that let them down a little today.
The Sharks will be disappointed with their ruck competition and will be focusing on allowing their jackallers clear sight of the ball. And, they will also be concerned about the lack of variety and penetration that they got from their 9/10/12 combinations, something that might improve when the injured Rohan Janse van Rensburg returns.
As a footnote, with some team selections in this year’s Champions Cup showing understrength teams, named purely for squad preservation, the Sharks should be commended for sending over their complete roster of stars for this fixture, despite being pretty much assured of qualification.