Harlequins are fast becoming the Premiership’s escape artists but a third consecutive last-ditch comeback proved just beyond them against Leicester, for whom Ellis Genge scored two tries and served up a reminder as to why he may be missed on the British & Irish Lions tour this summer.
On more than one occasion Leicester looked home and hosed but Harlequins, who have completed remarkable turnaround wins over London Irish and Wasps in recent weeks, clawed their way back to within six points and were battering away in the Tigers’ 22 in the closing stages. Not this time, however, and though it may seem harsh on Marcus Smith – their very own Harry Houdini – it must be said that he missed three conversions and managed only one on a difficult day from the tee.
George Ford edged the battle with the pretender for his England No 10 jersey but it is not as if Smith played badly, only that he could not conjure the sort of magic he has produced of late. It should also be noted that Leicester, no doubt with an eye on next Friday’s Challenge Cup final, replaced the majority of their frontline stars early in the second half. They may well have been more comfortable had they not.
If it was a surprise that Leicester had the bonus point wrapped up by half-time given Harlequins’ form of late, it was entirely warranted judging by the Tigers’ ascendancy in the opening 40 minutes. The centre Matt Scott was first over – Leicester prizing opening Quins with relative ease – and Genge had his first from close range soon after, thundering through the visitors’ defence. Jasper Wiese had taken the Tigers to within a couple of metres in another eye-catching performance from the No 8 hopeful of facing the British & Irish Lions this summer.
Harlequins were feeding off scraps but on a rare foray into the Leicester half they came away with five points with Nathan Earle finishing off a fine move after a strong carry from Alex Dombrandt and clever support work from Joe Marchant. Leicester had number three before the end of the first quarter, however. Ford’s long distance penalty into the corner was inch perfect, allowing Tom Youngs to burrow over on his return to the side.
A penalty try for Harlequins was immediately followed by a yellow card for Dan Cole and Genge joined him two minutes later, seemingly opening the door for the visitors to find a way back into the match. Genge’s yellow was for an illegal clearout on Jack Kenningham and was given after the referee Luke Pearce consulted the TMO. It meant that he reversed a decision to send Earle to the sin-bin for a deliberate knock-on and left Harlequins with a two-man advantage.
No matter for the Tigers who won that period 3-0 with a Ford penalty and after Genge had returned he steamrolled through Jack Lang before picking and going again for his second try of the afternoon, handing Leicester a commanding 29-12 lead at the interval.
Ford added another penalty after the restart but a third try for Harlequins, finished off by Marchant after a crossfield kick from Smith to cap a fine counterattack, featuring a lovely offload from Dombrandt, brought the visitors back to within two converted tries of the lead.
Considering their recent history of comebacks that was far from out of the equation and after a prolonged period in the Tigers 22, Earle went over in the right-hand corner with nine minutes remaining. Smith missed the conversion and a Zack Henry penalty pushed Leicester’s lead out to 11. Quins were not finished, however, and Luke Northmore’s 76th-minute try – with Dombrandt prominent again – brought them back to within six but number seven was not forthcoming.