Harlequins 10-21 Toulouse, Heineken Cup, Pool 6
Toulouse power past Harlequins
December 9, 2011
Harlequins' Nick Easter is shackled by the Toulouse defence at The Stoop
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A brutally efficient Toulouse laid down an impressive Heineken Cup marker and ended Harlequins' unbeaten start to the season with a 21-10 victory in their clash at the Twickenham Stoop on Friday night.
The Top 14 side out-muscled and out-played their hosts with a power-packed display that puts them firmly in control of Pool 6. A brace of tries from winger Timoci Matanavou underlined the French giants' dominance but the foundation for their latest European masterclass was laid by a forward pack with man of the match Louis Picamoles at its heart.
Premiership pacesetters Quins battled bravely throughout and threatened to turn the game on its head with a second half try from fullback Mike Brown but they lacked the punch of their rivals and as a result saw their 14-game winning streak dating back to the start of the season brought to an emphatic halt.
Kiwi fly-half Luke McAlister gave four-time champions Toulouse the lead after just five minutes with a long-range penalty but his kick was soon cancelled out by his compatriot Nick Evans with both sides penalised at the breakdown. Quins could have had the lead a few moments later if they had opted to go for the posts with their next kickable penalty but crucially scrum-half Danny Care opted for a quick-tap that ultimately proved fruitless.
Quins continued to play at a high tempo but Toulouse rarely looked troubled and that enviable assurance soon paid dividends. Lively scrum-half Luke Burgess sparked the move with a chip ahead before the rampaging Picamoles took a starring with a strong into the Quins 22. The No.8 then popped up again to link up with flanker Thierry Dusautoir who in turn put Matanavou in for the opening try of the game. McAlister was unable to add the conversion but he was able to atone after the re-start with Quins once again attracting the wrath of referee George Clancy for their attempts to secure the ball at the breakdown.
The home side stood steadfastly to their game plan and as a result they were forced to defend for long periods and that strain took its toll with another penalty as Toulouse successfully turned the screw. This time the distance proved too much for McAlister but he didn't dwell on the miss and soon sparked his side's latest raid that saw centre Florian Fritz hauled down just short of the line.
Quins' failure to hold their own at the breakdown undermined much of their good work elsewhere but Fritz' miss-hit drop goal in the dying moments of the half ensured they only trailed by eight points as they headed into the break.
The hosts' attempts to generate some momentum of their own in the early stages of the second half met with stern resistance until centre Matt Hopper cut a great line through an otherwise solid Toulouse defence. The visitors scrambled well and looked to have averted the danger only for Care to catch them napping. The No.9's decision to opt for yet another quick tap within kicking range brought him redemption with prop Joe Marler shifting the pass to Brown who bustled his way over for a try. Fritz appeared to have good reason to complain about being taking out off the ball during the build-up to the try but his complaints fell on deaf ears as Evans stepped up to stroke over the conversion and make it a one-point game.
Toulouse's response was predictably clinical with a fired-up pack earning a penalty at scrum-time that McAlister landed to give his side a little more breathing room. Stung into action, Matanavou led a chip and chase that had Brown under pressure in the shadow of his own posts and when he was forced in-goal, the Quins pack faced a major test at scrum time. A pick and go from Picamoles looked ominous but a big tackle from flanker Maurie Fa'asavalu through a sizeable spanner in the works but the Toulouse machine was soon running smoothly again.
Following a short delay that saw Marler stretchered from the field injured, a burst of speed from winger Vincent Clerc tore the Quins defence wide open. He then found fellow speedster Matanavou with a swift pass and he had the pace to evade Brown and dot down in the corner for a try that was confirmed by the Television Match Official. McAlister's excellent conversion cemented his side's lead, underlined their dominance and left Quins with a mountain to climb.
The physical demands of the game caught up with a tired-looking Quins as the contest entered the final ten minutes and their attempts to notch an unlikely game-changing score lacked pace and precision. Denied even a bonus point for their endeavour, Quins now face a must-win scenario in the reverse fixture in Toulouse next weekend.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.