Harlequins secured their place in the Champions Cup knockout stages in considerable style, chalking up a first victory of 2023 and giving a demonstration of what England are set to gain with Nick Evans now turning his attentions to running their attack.
Nick David was the standout performer against the Sharks, scoring the pick of Harlequins’ five tries in a fine showing orchestrated by Evans, who on Sunday joins up with England as attack coach. He will be joined by Marcus Smith, who impressed in his second match since injury to offer a glimpse of how England’s attack may function against Scotland next month.
It was also a demonstration of what Harlequins can do if the rain stays off. Danny Care, making his 350th appearance, got on the scoresheet, as did the England hopefuls Alex Dombrandt and Cadan Murley as well as Stephan Lewies. It was a win Harlequins needed, having not prevailed since Racing 92 were the visitors on 18 December.
It is no mean feat to progress with 12 points after double headers with the Sharks and Racing and even if Harlequins seem to lack the forward might that tends to be required at the business end of the campaign, they will cause their opponents problems in the last 16 on this evidence. It will help that Evans will be back from his England secondment by then. “We’ve all been really desperate to play in good conditions and score ties and [Nick has] orchestrated a pretty good gameplan that, when it’s executed, looks spectacular, so we wish him well,” said the Harlequins coach, Tabai Matson.
The introduction of the South African sides has not been without its difficulties but the Sharks have been a force to be reckoned with in the pool stages, making this victory for Harlequins all the more impressive. “The mindset triggers your physicality and if you’re not physical and your set piece doesn’t function, you have no chance against these guys,” added Matson. “I’m really pleased with our performance against a team of that quality.”
Harlequins’ quest got off to a bad start when Lukhanyo Am finished off the kind of stylish try that suggested it could be a long afternoon for the home side. Aphelele Fassi’s kick down the left touchline was gathered by Thaakir Abrahams, who fed the ball inside to Am for a clear run to the line.
It only served to kick Harlequins into gear, with three swashbuckling tries in the ensuing 20 minutes. Care had the first after Harlequins had gone through multiple phases with the Sharks’ defence floundering. The second was a beauty with Smith fizzing a pass to Joe Marchant, whose offload to David sliced open the Sharks’ defensive line. Dombrandt was running a trademark supporting line to go over. The third was a flowing move from left to right with Harlequins finding it all too easy to create the overlap. Murley finished off with David again the provider.
Curwin Bosch had added a penalty for the Sharks early, and to the visitors’ credit they stuck in the contest with Jaden Hendrikse scoring a try in the right-hand corner that owed much to perseverance after a powerful run from Marnus Potgieter. A Smith penalty extended Harlequins’ lead to nine but then Eben Etzebeth scored a bizarre try to keep his side within touching distance. The Springboks lock stole in to seize the loose ball from under Care’s nose at the bottom of a ruck and scamper clear. Care was incensed, convinced that Etzebeth had no right to go for the ball, but replays appeared to show that Joe Marler’s bind as part of the caterpillar ruck had been broken and the South African was therefore legal.
Harlequins reestablished some breathing space when Lewies splashed over in the corner from the back of a driving maul before David produced the score of the match with a fine finish from inside his own half. The Sharks were threatening at that point but Abrahams’ kick was straight into David’s arms. Spotting space in behind, he collected his grubber kick and raced clear to put Harlequins in command.
Led by the tireless Siya Kolisi the Sharks kept toiling but Smith’s penalty kept the home side comfortably ahead despite Fassi’s late score, which did, at least, ensure a losing bonus point for the Sharks, who were chasing a home tie in the next round.