Mad, wasn’t it? That, having produced such a semi-final, Harlequins should do it all over again in the final. Madness is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results. Maybe we’re the ones that are mad?
Learned minds opined: Exeter aren’t Bristol, semis aren’t finals, at some point, this moon will wane. Logically, and out of politeness, you had to agree. Which is ok: because secretly, by complying, you were goading it into happening a second time. Gently prodding it with your naysayer’s stick: “Go on, I bet you can’t do it again…”
The game began with an impertinent punch on the nose. Chiefly, that Quins could go through Exeter, not just around them. A churlish message that begot a blunt reply. The Devon men taking the ball and not giving it back. Alec Hepburn and Jonny Gray had both squeezed over before the half-hour mark and Marcus Smith was sent to the bin. Referee Carley pairing the card dished out to Jonny Hill earlier in the half.
And then, on thirty-seven minutes, against the hulking black mass, a seismic shift. First Andre Esterhuizen, then Jack Kenningham, was repulsed as Quins pounded the line; yet the third wave had a different tremor. Wilco Louw absorbed the initial tackle from Hepburn and remained upright, those titanic thighs firing like pistons aboard a warship. Assistance came from Matt Symons, fastening his craft around the Springbok’s waist. Further bombardment came from port and starboard and still, the vessel sailed, wrenching a hole through which to reach. The ball was downed and up rose the South African, as phlegmatic as a moustachioed strongman who was being congratulated for being just that. Joe Marchant on kicking duties, with Smudger ill-disposed, flicked the outside of the post. The lead was still Exeter’s.
Two scores either side of the break made neutrals swallow. The first, a mighty gulp. A penalty five metres out and Quins, with Chiefs warned, elected to scrummage: cue Adam Jones up and out of his seat. The set-piece wheeled to allow Danny Care a scurry sideways and as they came back the other way, Dombrandt ran an inside arc as if depicted by a Dutch master. So many times the sequined muse this season, apex Alex rounded in front of the fans with sheer delight. Little Marcus’s brushwork was beginning to take shape.
The interval brought more rational thought: the well the London side continued to visit would run dry; the experience of champions would tell; control would be taken and power asserted. We nodded sagely and desperately hoped against it.
After a few minutes of the second half, that hope was kindled. Tom O’Flaherty thumped the ball deep and Tyrone Green took it above his head. Forward he slalomed and pushed the ball Louis Lynagh’s way; he freed his arms and brought in Kenningham, who juggled temporarily; Stephan Lewies played conduit and found James Chisholm, who found Smith. Cadan Murley was loitering out wide and the fly half’s looping pass found him with aplomb; the winger surged forward and as Esterhuizen cut back, Marchant recognised the pattern. The pair combined and crucially the outside centre kept his feet, freeing himself from would-be tacklers like Wilco before the break. Scott Baldwin had kept pace and cleared the ruck for Care who, in turn, found Esterhuizen once more. A masterpiece of a score, made great by the sheer spectrum of players involved. If attacking rugby can paint these pictures, we need more galleries.
The game was now affluent. Chiefs enraged by such artistic temerity burst forth like an angry water main: Sam Simmonds pivoting and plunging over the line to quench the fire. And then brother Joe cascaded free from Cowan-Dickie’s return ball. Devoto thumped his chest in the in-goal area and Devon were back in front.
But with the end nigh, the prodigal ten was smelling opportunities. The ball bounced loose and the outside-half retreated to regather it. Smith faced the advancing defensive line and his feet seemed to play their own drum roll before presenting the ‘taa-da’ we all knew was coming. The beauty of the goose-step is in the eye of the beholder. Lynagh knew not to look directly into the light and was pointing crowd-wards before the ball was down. Smith’s touchline conversion traced a consummate line and Quins were leading once more.
Limitless Lynagh; Louis the Beloved; son and heir. Once more the jiggling Green was released on the right-hand side. The ball from Smith was sumptuously presented for the South African to ease onto and yet the final pass was high and fast. Lynagh gleaned it one-handed, audaciously, bodaciously, plucking the match-winning apple with the nonchalance of youth and the assurance of a golden age.
Hogg and Exeter, like Malins and Bristol before them, lurched irredeemably but this was destiny speaking. Somehow and some way, Harlequins had made the machine work, repeatedly. Cogs and wheels every one of them, oiled by belief and brotherhood. A machine built for attack in a defensive world. A machine that plays possibilities, rather than percentages. A machine that isn’t really a machine: it’s human. Probably flawed, potentially vulnerable, but perfectly and pleasingly heroic.