Harlequins stun Chiefs to end nine-year wait
Nick Powell covers the stunning triumph of the Harlequins over the Exeter Chiefs
Exeter Chiefs 38 – 40 Harlequins
Harlequins produced another astonishing play-off performance as they put six tries past the Exeter Chiefs to claim the Premiership title for the first time since 2012.
After Harlequins scored an early penalty try and the Chiefs saw Jonny Hill sin-binned, the Devonians struck back with two tries through Jonny Gray and Alec Hepburn and were within two minutes of a halftime lead.
But Quins scored their own quickfire double on the stroke of half-time through Wilco Louw and Alex Dombrandt and then again after Andre Esterhuizen rounded off an outstanding move following the break to open up a 12 point lead.
Once more, Chiefs hit back as record-breaking try-scorer, and British and Irish Lion Sam Simmonds gave them hope before Ollie Devoto finished a fine try to get them back into the lead.
But into the last ten minutes, a late brace from 20-year-old Louis Lynagh gave Harlequins an unassailable lead. Though Stuart Hogg struck back almost straight after the second try, Exeter ran out of time, and Quins clinched victory.
Ambition on show as teams trade blows
Harlequins had not made a final since their sole other title victory but made their intentions to play with the same purpose they have all season clear from the outset. Winning a penalty after Hill went offside in midfield, talismanic fly-half Marcus Smith opted to kick into the corner rather than going for what would have been an easy three points.
After finding the five-metre line with a brave but brilliant kick, it was Hill who infringed again as he dragged down the resulting lineout drive. When he emerged from the pile of bodies on the floor, he was sent to the sin bin, and Harlequins had been given seven points with a penalty try.
Following a pattern that has been present all season, however, the team with 14 men did not become any less potent, and Chiefs would spend most of the next ten minutes attacking Quins before Gray went over from close range just as Hill was returning to the field of play.
After Lynagh’s feet strayed into touch following an inch-perfect kick from Simmonds, Exeter once again drove for the line, and after Hepburn drove over, Chiefs took a deserved lead for the first time.
Quins salvo either side of half-time sets up victory
Following indiscretions in the build-up to Hepburn’s score, referee Matthew Carley showed consistency as he sent Marcus Smith to the sin bin after the earlier card to Hill. Without their main man, the driver of their attack and best player, it seemed the best Harlequins could hope for was heading in at half-time without Chiefs building on the 14-7 lead they now had.
But that was not to be; Quins showed the same ambition they have all season as they went back on the attack. Winning a penalty in the Exeter half, they went into the corner again. The next try they scored seemed to have been built in Sandy Park rather than the Twickenham Stoop, but tighthead prop Wilco Louw converted their sustained pressure into points as he barrelled over.
Quins’ last act without Smith was for Joe Marchant to miss the resulting conversion, but they went straight back on the attack, searching for a half-time lead. With their fly-half now back on the field, he was able to drive their attack forward, and after his team once again turned down a chance for points, and a half-time lead of one point, Smith showed his class. A beautifully weighted inside ball to Dombrandt would be the penultimate act of a pulsating half before he followed it up with a conversion to give Quins a 19-14 half-time lead.
The Londoners were not finished there as just three minutes after the break they scored again. Following a break upon retrieving Tom O’Flaherty’s kick from Tyrone Green, he fed Lynagh who burst forward to generate quick ball for Quins. Smith utilised the resulting overlap with an outstanding miss-pass, and after Esterhuizen burst forward, he offloaded and bounced back to his feet to receive the ball from the next phase and finish the score.
Chiefs strike back, but Lynagh’s last laugh breaks their hearts
Dropping the ball straight from the restart, Quins immediately invited Exeter back onto themselves. Sam Simmonds upped his try tally to 21 as he superbly regained his footing after not being held in the tackle to burst over and immediately reduce Quins lead to five points at 26-21. They came back once again; three classy phases up the two touchlines bringing them from deep inside their own half to within ten metres of the Quins line, but Sam Simmonds’ offload was intercepted.
Eventually they would score however, a half-break and offload back inside from Luke-Cowan Dickie sending Joe Simmonds through a hole before he fed Ollie Devoto for the try that levelled the scores, with an easy kick from the Chiefs Captain giving Chiefs the lead. 25 minutes remained though, and if the last few weeks have proved anything, that is plenty of time for Harlequins.
Chiefs went on the attack again, this time going for three points to extend the lead to five, but that may have ultimately been a costly mistake as it enabled Quins the chance to get out of their 22 after five minutes of big pressure from Exeter. Initially Exeter attacked again, but Simmonds threw a carbon copy of the offload that had cost his side possession before and Quins were on the attack as the clock drifted in to the final ten minutes of a pulsating match.
It was a mistake that ultimately gave Quins a try. James Chisholm – who had otherwise had a superb afternoon – threw a poor pass behind Marcus Smith, but after retrieving it, the fly-half had the space to throw his increasingly well-known goose step to feed Lynagh on a fantastic hard-line. The son of legendary Australian player Michael went over to give Smith a kick to put his side into the lead.
From the touchline Smith nailed the kick and back came Quins, Jack Yeandle’s knock-on giving Quins the possession and they went on the attack once more, and this time it was Green who fed Lynagh for his second try. Smith once again kicked the conversion, this time from even wider, and that looked to be the match.
Until Exeter responded no more than half a minute later. After nicking the restart, Hogg scored after a break from Gary Kirsten and Simmonds kicked the crucial conversion. When the ball was returned to them however, and as they went for the final score, Kirsten knocked on. Danny Care booted the ball high into the stands to secure a truly famous victory for a side with no head coach, who had won just two of their first eight games in all competitions and had not reached a Premiership semi-final in the time it had taken Exeter to reach the previous five finals.
Quins played outstanding rugby from the end of January onwards. Despite finishing fourth in the league table, they are as worthy a title-winning side as they were when leading the table from round three in their 2012 triumph. An extraordinary game capped an extraordinary season. With Saracens returning to the top tier next season, next year’s title race is set to be one of the all-time great battles for the Premiership, if this year was not already.