Harlequins 30-23 Leicester Tigers, Aviva Premiership final
Mighty Quins tame Tigers
Graham Jenkins at Twickenham
May 26, 2012
Harlequins wing Ugo Monye leads the celebrations at the final whistle © Getty Images
It wasn't supposed to be like this. Harlequins may have topped the Aviva Premiership table for much of the regular season but the prospect of their first appearance in the title-decider against old stagers Leicester was supposed to reduce them to also-rans. Instead, they thrived on the occasion and showed an enviable temperament that put their rivals very much in the shade on a glorious day for the competition and English rugby in general.
It may have been a little greedy to expect these two sides to deliver the kind of thrilling encounter that they produced just a few weeks ago in the regular season, but they tried. Finals aren't normally such enthralling affairs. The pressure of the occasion and the significance of the prize on offer are supposed to demand a conservative approach, but try telling that to Harlequins. They celebrated their first appearance in a Premiership final by tearing up the textbook and not only did they stick to the expansive approach that has served them so well this season, they decided to raise their game - and then some.
Spearheading that crowd-pleasing assault was Danny Care. The scrum-half hit rock bottom earlier in the season having been arrested four times in as many months for off-field misdemeanours and then dumped out of the England squad. It appeared his career was spiralling out of control but to his credit he reversed the slide and the great steps he has taken since in re-building his reputation were emphatically endorsed by a superb display in the Twickenham sunshine. It could have been so different had he not broken his own fall when thrown to the ground by a venomous, and arguably illegal, tackle from Leicester's Manu Tuilagi in the opening exchanges.
Thankfully for Quins and the 81,779 fans that were entertained throughout a see-saw contest, Care dusted himself off before reducing the Leicester defence to swiss cheese, having punched hole after hole in their vaunted rearguard. He was a constant thorn in the Tigers' side with a game-defining blend of pace, power, ingenuity and self-determination.
Unsurprisingly in the stifling heat, Care was unable to sustain such a high tempo and as well as giving his international rival and opposite number Ben Youngs the breathing room to spark a Tigers revival, he also saw his team-mate and captain Chris Robshaw steal the Man of the Match honour for a typically gritty and inspirational display, including an outrageous attacking line on his way to a crucial try.
It was due reward for a superb if surreal season. A campaign that began with the bitter disappointment of missing out on England's Rugby World Cup has since reached such highs it will take some time to hit the ever-impressive flanker. Made England captain by new boss Stuart Lancaster, he helped drag the national side out of the gutter while keeping Quins on course for the business end of the season. His unrivalled influence was recognised with the Aviva Premiership Player of the Year award that will now be eclipsed by English rugby's biggest prize.
There were plenty of red faces around English rugby's HQ due to the blazing sunshine but none more so than those of a Leicester side that fell monumentally short of the high standards that they have set in recent weeks. A run of 11 straight - largely try-laden - victories came to an abrupt halt at their own hands. The team's arrival was delayed by some 40 minutes following a motorway accident and their timing appeared to be off throughout the afternoon.
A scrum that was supposed to lay the foundation for another Premiership title failed to fire while their usually peerless lineout was just as shaky at times. The most worrying aspect of their failure to perform was their indiscipline. A side that boasted the best record in the league this season, and were the only side to concede under 10 penalties and free kicks per game, lost their way in the heat of the battle and gifted Quins playmaker Nick Evans too many chances to take the game away from them.
The most glaring example of such uncharacteristic behaviour went unpunished. Tuilagi's reckless challenge on Care could have signalled the end of his contribution - just a couple of minutes into the game - had referee Wayne Barnes seen the offence in the same way the vast majority of those present did. But while they escaped the wrath of the referee's whistle on that occasion they was no escape as they were stretched time and time again to breaking point under a lung-busting, all-action assault from Quins.
Add in a yellow card for No.8 Thomas Waldrom and countless sloppy errors and you wonder how they were still in the contest in the dying embers of the match - but then you realise that this is Leicester we are talking about. If any other side was two tries adrift with less than 15 minutes on the clock then they would be as good as beaten, but this is the Tigers and unsurprisingly they came alive again late in the game. Hopes were high of one more dramatic twist in a thrilling clash only for their own shortcomings at the set-piece to return and those dreams to fade.
One side's despair is another's delirium. Quins celebrated with wild abandon and you sense that Conor O'Shea and his charges have not yet reached their peak. That will be music to the ears to those fans that offered a 'guard of honour' as Quins made their way to the stadium by foot from their usual stadium at The Stoop just over the A316 - and they will not doubt be heralded by many more when they make their way home again.
Among them might be England boss Stuart Lancaster, whose smile will have surely been as broad as any Quins supporter having witnessed further evidence that English rugby is firmly back on track.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.