Harlequins 40-13 Biarritz, Heineken Cup
Quins cement status as title challengers
Tom Hamilton at The Stoop
October 13, 2012
Chris Robshaw led from the front throughout Harlequins' win over Biarritz © PA Photos
Harlequins' 40-13 victory over Biarritz was the perfect example of the Conor O'Shea project. A team forged on promotion from within, backing lesser names who will in time become heroes and all brought together with that essential ingredient for any successful team - trust. An arm-wrestle of a first-half was out-weighed by a dominant, powerful and accurate performance from the Aviva Premiership champions in the second - and all this without talismanic fly-half Nick Evans who exited the field after 16 minutes.
The boardrooms around Europe are still hotly contesting the future of this brilliant competition but even the most corporate-hatted individual must have raised a smile at the swagger with which Harlequins dismantled Biarritz.
It was a day when the French sides had showed their pride in the competition. By the time the first tackle had gone in or the first Gallic chants of 'Allez Biarritz' or the more snarly 'C'mon Quins' had rallied from the stands, Racing Metro and Clermont Auvergne had already set the standard to the rest of the Top 14 sides embarking on their new European adventure. But while Clermont Auvergne downed 14-man Scarlets and Racing Metro embraced the awful conditions of the Stade de France and overcame a Munster side that snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, Biarritz came up against an altogether different proposition.
The last time The Stoop played host to a European match, Biarritz had their mitts on the Amlin Challenge Cup after defeating Toulon at Harlequins' ground back in May. Two of their key protagonists that day Imanol Harinordoquy and Dimitri Yachvili were missing in action and it showed. England scrum-half Danny Care had the run of the turf and Nick Easter out-powered a Biarritz back-row that missed the muscle and mind of Harinordoquy.
Quins boss O'Shea asked for a reaction from his team after two defeats on the bounce and even the ever-reserved coach must've raised a smile when academy graduate Rob Buchanan burrowed over for his side's second try of their eventual four. It is what the club is built around - promoting from within. They are two hookers down - with Joe Gray, mooted by many to be England's second choice No.2 behind Dylan Hartley, and Chris Brooker both sidelined - but Buchanan, in his first start of the season, rose to the challenge and personified the Quins ethos. And there was more joy for the home side's production line when Seb Stegmann grabbed the fourth try.
Before the game, when looking at the team sheet, there were 11 academy graduates in the 23-man squad. But whenever you talk or write about Harlequins, try as you might, you can't help but mention one of them - Chris Robshaw. Once again, it was a brilliant performance from the skipper. They say you can't fit square pegs into round holes but while Robshaw isn't built in your Neil Back mould for an openside, all the column inches, awards and praise levelled at his feet are worthy. He was a constant menace to Biarritz - superb around the breakdown, a reliable option in the lineout and the first man to any loose ball.
But while you can single out Robshaw for his consistent brilliance, it's difficult to not continue picking out other notable performers. From 1 to 15, Quins shone. And perhaps what O'Shea might take out of this match over and above everything else positive was that for 64 minutes, they did it without Evans. Easter took the man of the match award but Quins supporters could well look back at this match in a few years time as the game that launched a new Kiwi half-back hero.
Ben Botica - son of All Black Frano - kept the scoreboard ticking over with his contribution of 18 points and persistently pushed the tempo of the match - personifying O'Shea's pre-match wish that he wanted his side "to keep on playing". And post-match, O'Shea praised the fly-half labelling him "pretty special" in what was "the biggest game he's ever played in".
But while some might be quick to label him the potential successor to Evans' throne - if the fly-half opts for the lucrative contracts reportedly on offer in France and Japan - the proof will be in how he performs over the next couple of the weeks. "Like father like son" was O'Shea's post-match assessment of Botica but typical of the Quins ethos, it is unlikely whether the Harlequins hierarchy would have been surprised by the young fly-half's mature and accomplished showing.
Similar to Botica, the expectation will now be on Quins to continue in this manner and continue to cement their credentials as potential Heineken Cup champions next week against Connacht. O'Shea said at the beginning of the campaign that last season's Premiership victory was just the start of this team's success and it's hard to argue with him. Saracens have already made some noise with their 45-0 win over Edinburgh while Exeter rallied against Leinster but were eventually undone. But Harlequins' 40-13 win over Biarritz is likely to raise the most eyebrows around Europe.
And it was the same at The Stoop. The crowd rose every time Harlequins made a break, substituted a player, knocked over some points or crossed the try line and there's great excitement surrounding this side on and off the terraces. Their back-to-back defeats going into this match asked questions of O'Shea's side but the team responded superbly. Regardless of their Premiership title-holders' status, putting 40 points on a Top 14 side with the stature of Biarritz is impressive.
Next week sees them travel to Connacht, the team that ended their Heineken Cup charge last season, and the Irish province will be greeted by an entirely different prospect to the one they faced last season. This team is maturing by the game - with fresh-faces dropped in on a weekly basis - which should be a frightening thought for the rest of Europe.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.