A try with just six minutes left on the clock and a late penalty secured a 26-20 win for Harlequins against Leicester Tigers at the Twickenham Stoop in Round 23 of the Gallagher Premiership season on Saturday.
There was little to split the teams throughout, following a trend with five of the last six meetings decided by margins of six points or fewer.
In a breathtaking opening few minutes of a game between the defending champions and the current league leaders, Quins led 12-7 with tries from Will Collier and Cadan Murley either side of Nemani Nadolo’s score in his return to the Tigers line-up.
A fierce wind blowing down the pitch made it difficult for both teams, but Tigers levelled the scores with an enterprising score finished by Hanro Liebenberg before the hosts moved into a 15-12 lead at half-time with a penalty.
But Andre Esterhuizen’s try just 60 seconds later gave Quins the lead once more on the way to their sixth successive league win and a late penalty pushed the gap top six points, though Tigers headed back home with one point from the afternoon.
Tigers, who have qualified for the semi-final of the Premiership Cup and last eight in Europe since their last league trip to Exeter at the end of March, were led by Liebenberg with club captain Ellis Genge alongside Dan Cole on the bench. Harry Wells also started among the replacements before making his 150th first-team appearance for Tigers and 100th in the Premiership.
Quins turned down a kick in front of the posts just moments after Marcus Smith got the game started and, after playing to left corner, they were celebrating the opening points of the afternoon with just four minutes gone.
It was prop Collier who made the final charge after a series of carries up front, and Smith added the conversion.
But Tigers replied with a try in their first attack, levelling the scores as George Ford converted a score from Nadolo created from lineout ball on the left.
Quins thought they’d scored again in their next attack, despite a superb covering tackle on his own line by Harry Potter which pushed Stephan Liewes backwards when it appeared the flanker must score. But they recycled towards the left again and Smith ran in.
The try, however, was disallowed after TMO consultation with referee Wayne Barnes, noting an obstruction in the build-up as Ford tried to defend.
Play came back, though, for Quins scrum ball in front of the posts and a quick pass from Smith put wing Murley in unopposed at the left corner flag for the try. Smith’s conversion attempt flew well short in the blustery wind.
A catch and pass through his own legs by Matias Moroni brought cheers from both sections of the crowd, but Nadolo then knocked on as he attacked done the right touchline.
Quins started the gain scrum penalties but, when they attacked down the right, Freddie Burns thumped his kick 70 metres downfield, with the bounce making it into a 50:22 and giving Tigers the throw. They were frustrated, as the defence wrapped up man and ball.
Tigers replied in kind at a Quins lineout near halfway, finally earning scrum put-in as the clock passed 25 minutes, and a second try for the visitors soon followed.
It was a cracker too, beginning midway inside their own half, where Nadolo carried strongly and Moroni showed his create it and his pace to cut in on a diagonal before passing Liebenberg in support and the skipper did the rest to dive in on the left.
Danny Care threatened from a ruck on the 10-metre line but, when met by Potter, he spilled ball as he looked for support.
Another scrum penalty, though, gave Smith the chance to make it 15-12 on 35 minutes, keeping his kick low into the wind from 25 metres.
Referee Barnes and the TMO checked a potential high tackle from Calum Green on Joe Marler, but play restarted with a penalty to Tigers after the officials spotted a push into contact by a Quins player.
Marler made his point to the referee, but Barnes sent him away to speak to captain Lewies as Tigers played ball to the corner. Two more penalties, and a cautionary word to the defenders, followed but Tigers were then whistled as they transferred ball in the drive in the concluding action of the half.
A clearing kick from Care, with the wind now at Quins’ backs, pushed the early action into the Tigers half at the restart and the threatened with their carries in attack.
But Burns picked off a long pass out wide and set off 60 metres upfield before being chased down. Ben Youngs picked up in support and nudged play forward again, cleverly pushing the hosts back.
Ellis Genge, Dan Cole and Jasper Wiese were sent on with the second half only five minutes old, Harry Wells joining them in his landmark appearance.
Burns was hurt as he chipped ahead again but was back on his feet to meet a kick from Smith and drill towards the right touchline with the game being confined to the middle third of the pitch.
The full-back did well again when Smith landed a high kick on the edge ofd the 22, catching safely with the support of team-mates to allow Youngs to clear.
When the whistle went at the next breakdown, Potter had to react quickly to grab a chip-kick from Smith, but Tigers escaped when centre Esterhuizen dropped ball as he took a tap penalty just short of the tryline.
The scrum which followed brought a whistle in Tigers’ favour and Barnes blew again for an offence on halfway and for a third time as they mauled ball on the 10-metre line.
Quins had sent on a whole new front row as the game passed 50 minutes, still leading by three, but they conceded another penalty as Tigers patiently drove a maul close to the right touchline.
There was a pause in play as Olly Robinson was treated for a cut before the lineout led to a third try and the lead for the first time.
Carries from Nadolo, Wells, Clare and Liebenberg almost reached the chalk but Tigers recycled and then Wiese barged over to make it 17-15. Ford, though, saw his conversion come back off the post.
The referee spoke to Genge and Quins tighthead Wilco Louw before resetting a scrum and Tigers looked like they had closed out a promising position for their rivals until Smith found Lynagh with a long pass to the right.
Although Lynagh skipped down the line to dive into the corner, Liebenberg had done enough to force him to tread on the touchline just short of the corner flag.
Tigers had to work hard to clear from the set-piece with the home crowd pushing their team on.
Lynagh was back on the ball in the next attack, but was wrapped up by Wells before the whistle went in the home side’s favour in a central position and Smith added the kick to put his team, 18-17 in front on 68 minutes.
Ford tested the defence with a towering, spinning kick before Lynagh’s clearing kick was carried by the wind over the deadball line, bringing play back up to the Quins 10-metre line and a Tigers scrum. But after trying to play along the backline, Tigers dropped ball.
The scrum brought a penalty as the home props collapsed, but Ford was off target into the wind from 40 metres.
Kickchase from Tigers was rewarded with another penalty when Richard Wigglesworth was impeded and this time Burns stepped up to score and make it 20-18.
Quins immediately responded by building an attack on the right where Smith had two runners outside as he passed to Esterhuizen and he dotted down just inside the chalk to provide a 23-20 lead.
Smith’s conversion went well wide of the posts, but he did add a thre-pointer moments later to bring the game to a close.