Chaos at the Stoop, as a fantastic contest concluded at the death with a Quins victory. The lead had changed hands throughout, especially in a second half that featured turn after turn. Exeter faced one passage of play, well after time, down to 13 men, but the final deed – a penalty try the umpteenth chaotic scrum – settled the game in the home team’s favour five minutes after the clock had turned red.
The bonus-point win takes Quins into the top six, from ninth, but Exeter remain clear at the top. Curiously, it was at the scrum that they would be found out, even as they ran in three fine tries themselves with an aplomb more associated with Harlequins.
It looked as if Exeter would do no more than pick up where they left off the weekend before, when they had put 50 past fellow play-off contenders Northampton. With pretty much their first stretch of possession, Phil Dollman dummied and broke inside Marcus Smith for a fine individual try in only the third minute. The home side rode that indignity and started to flex their muscles, taking on the side most renowned for such physicality at their own game.
To begin with, the Quins scrum could no wrong. Having won an early penalty, they won another within range, which Smith landed with confidence. Joe Simmonds replied almost immediately with a penalty for Exeter, before Harlequins levelled, again the points stemming from a scrum.
At the end of the first quarter, two more penalties were won by the home pack, at the second of which Danny Care, in his 200th Premiership appearance, tapped and fed the formidable Paul Lasike on the charge. There is not much arguing with the American on the charge, and his path to the line was unbroken. Very direct, very Exeter. A penalty apiece, albeit with Exeter’s scrum starting to win favour for no obvious reason, maintained parity at the break.
That did not last long, neither Exeter’s ascendancy at the scrum, nor the parity. Quins repeated the scrum-Care-Lasike routine to set up Tevita Cavubati from close range. Cue the Simmonds brothers.
Sam cut inside Lasike like the centre he might have been in another life for a dazzling break, which was improved when brother Joe ghosted past four more tacklers to the line. Three minutes later, and Sam broke again, Elvis Taione charged deep into Quins territory, before Joe ghosted through again, past three this time, for Exeter’s third.
The match was warming into a fine contest as the weather finally settled into some evening sunshine. Quins levelled again on the hour. Another scrum (instead of a simple shot at goal), and this time Alex Dombrandt fed Care who sent Smith on an arc round the Exeter midfield.
Nick Auterac saw the first of three late yellow cards, when he deliberately knocked on after Joe Simmonds had split Quins’ defence once more. He landed the penalty that put Exeter ahead with quarter of an hour to go.
The drama was only just beginning. It seemed as if Exeter had survived the next siege on their line, but Ollie Devoto was caught on camera with a high tackle on Smith. He was next to go to the bin, with six minutes to go. Quins continued to take scrums for each penalty. At one point, with a minute to go, the referee apologised for awarding one too quickly when Care cross-kicked to an unmarked Gabriel Ibitoye. From then on, any benefit of the doubt would go to the home side.
Alec Hepburn’s yellow card at the umpteenth scrum penalty reduced Exeter to 13 briefly, but there would be time for Devoto to return before the game was finally settled. The scrum splintered into chaos, and the referee marched to the sticks. An unsatisfactory way to win, but appropriately dramatic.