Rugby-Twickenham triumph completes amazing Harlequins turnaround

·3-min read
Premiership Play-Off Final - Exeter Chiefs v Harlequins

By Mitch Phillips

LONDON (Reuters) - As the entire Harlequins squad, staff and their families cavorted around the pitch soaking up every last drop of joy from their amazing 40-38 Premiership final win over Exeter it was easy to forget how dire things were at the club five months ago.

Two wins from their first seven league games had them worrying about relegation as the relationship between head coach Paul Gustard and the squad was splintering.

Gustard was dismissed but instead of replacing him the club empowered their existing assistant coaches and the senior players to formulate the resurrection.

Before the former England defence coach's departure the team were scoring an average of 21 points per match. Saturday's win was their 14th from 19 games at a scoring rate of 35 points per match.

Visionary flyhalf Marcus Smith has been given the freedom to run the game as he sees it, with veteran scrumhalf Danny Care giving him the ball and every encouragement.

They finished fourth in the table but the journey looked to be over in the semi-finals when they trailed 28-0 to a blistering Bristol after half an hour of their away clash.

Somehow they came back to win that game in extra time, and the self-belief that generated was oozing through their veins on Saturday.

Exeter, last year's English and European champions and appearing in their sixth successive final, are the masters of seeing a game out and when they opened a five-point lead with 13 minutes to go the odds were heavily on them retaining the title.

Quins though continued to attack with verve, slinging high-risk passes that ended with 20-year-old Louis Lynagh twice flying over the line in the corner and Smith, surely due for his full England call-up, slotting both conversions.

It would not be Harlequins, however, if they did not have a wobble, as Stuart Hogg replied for Exeter leading to a nervous last two minutes before the celebrations could begin.

"We started to believe in what we're about and what we want to be. We don't do it the easy way," said man of the match prop Joe Marler, a veteran of Quins' last triumph in 2012.

"I've taken in every single moment today and at 21 I didn't have a clue what I was doing. This time it's on another level, I'm so grateful. The group of boys has got stronger and stronger and the love for each other is massive."

Thirty years ago Michael Lynagh helped Australia win the World Cup on the same pitch and, after seeing son Louis develop at nearby Richmond before recently emerging as a Harlequins regular, he would enjoyed his return to the famous stadium.

Louis said of his dad: "I think my brothers and girlfriend said he was crying. He won't do it in front of me.

"To make him proud is all I've wanted in life. I saw him cheering. He's my biggest fan and I'm so glad I could this for him."

Such is sport that a year ago it was Exeter winning the plaudits for the culmination of their remarkable 10-year journey from the Championship to dual champions, but this time they were the big guns brought to earth.

"Quite frankly we weren't good enough were we? We conceded 40 points which tells you the whole story," said the club's director of rugby Rob Baxter.

"We came in with the best defence and we haven't achieved that today. Harlequins have come out and won the game with their energy and emotion and they deserve massive credit. We can talk about it and analyse it but today wasn't our day."

(Reporting by Mitch Phillips; Editing by Ken Ferris)

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