Two teams played here as if they had forgotten how to win. In the end, they forgot how to lose as well. A 30-30 cliffhanger might suggest rather more quality than was on show here, at the Big Game Whatever Number That Is Now. The truth is Quins threw this game away, but scraps from the table is all Leicester are after these days. They duly took them, Telusa Veainu levelling the scores with five minutes to go, after Leicester had trailed 27-13 on the hour.
One area the Tigers did dominate was at scrum time, even if the referee’s interpretations had Paul Gustard seething afterwards. “I think we were the most dominant team by far,” he said. “It feels more like a loss. I’m gutted and disappointed with the referee today. There was one offside given all game. We were on the wrong end of the penalty count in open play, yet we were the one team playing with ball in hand.”
Will Collier carried the can for multiple Quins infringements at scrum time and saw yellow to render Quins vulnerable at the most vulnerable stage of the game. He had just replaced Kyle Sinckler, who left the field limping ominously with the Six Nations heaving into view. With Joe Marler pressed into emergency service at tighthead, Leicester’s advancing scrum set the stage for Veainu’s late score.
The draw leaves Leicester looking over their shoulders still, with Wasps rediscovering their winning touch and Saracens on the hunt all those points adrift. We know Dai Young cancelled Christmas for Wasps, with some effect, winning at Bristol at the death on Friday night. It is hard to imagine Geordan Murphy encouraged his boys to fill their stockings over the festive season, either. This strong finish might vindicate any policy of austerity, but no one at Welford Road is going to be fooled by another mediocre showing beyond the set piece.
Undoubtedly, the highlights of the match were supplied by the “home” team, with Leicester almost entirely absent in the first half. A win here could have moved Quins into the top four for the new year. They were the most proactive throughout. One sequence of interplay between backs and forwards in the first half was particularly pleasing on the eye, if worthless on the scoreboard, and the one try of the opening period was theirs.
Danny Care looked as lively as anyone. A menacing dart down the left set up an attacking scrum. Marler and Sinckler held their England colleagues at that one, and from the platform Care sent Paul Lasike charging through Kyle Eastmond for as uncomplicated a try as a Harlequins fan is used to. That accounted for their seven-point lead at the break.
It was over to Eastmond, then, to try to trigger a response, which he did early in the second half, when he intercepted Sinckler’s wild pass to sprint home from his own half and level the scores. Alas, all that did was to provoke Quins, and the role reversal was neat.
A chastened Sinckler rampaged through Leicester’s defence to set up the position from which Elia Elia was held up. From the scrum, Lasike acted as dummy this time, and Care fed Marcus Smith, lurking behind, who picked on Eastmond just as mercilessly. Having stepped through the latter’s tackle he cut past two more for Quins’ second try.
Eastmond did not survive the indignity, hauled off a few minutes later, but Sinckler had one last charge before he too departed, in his case with that worrying limp. England’s tighthead charged close from Quins’ latest foray, and England’s loosehead Marler drove his captain, Chris Robshaw, over for their third.
A 14-point deficit finally roused Leicester. Jordan Taufua looks the closest the Tigers have to an invigorating new presence. There was nothing new about the penalty-to-the-corner routine they twice pursued, but the way he was driven through the heart of Harlequins’ lineout was decisive if nothing else.
Step forward George Ford on the stage he knows so well. England’s maestro, off the back of another retreating Quins scrum, now rearranged following Collier’s yellow, chipped to where Harlequins were undermanned, having withdrawn a back, and Veainu was haring to the posts to draw Leicester level.
It was more or less Leicester’s sole flash of class. Not enough, perhaps, to save a great club from danger, but something to build upon at least. That it should come to this.