Friday night, and no Danny Care, no Marcus Smith, no Mike Brown and no Chris Robshaw for Harlequins against Ulster at the Stoop. Also, they had opted for Kyle Sinkler as captain, in a move that had ‘fiery encounter followed by silly yellow card’ written all over it. In the end, the ‘Quins captain was remarkably peripheral, and cut an increasingly frustrated figure as his team missed their absentees, before being subbed with 55 on the clock.
The Harlequins selection, with Bret Herron and Martin Landajo forming a new-half back pairing and the evergreen Goneva making his first start, suggested from the get-go that Paul Gustard had one eye on the Premiership heading into this fixture.
And with good reason too, Ulster had won their previous three games by just a combined seven points, including last weeks narrow victory in Belfast, yet they arrived in Twickenham top of Pool 3 and full of confidence, whilst ‘Quins sat in third, seven points behind the leaders.
As early as the second minute the ever-dominant Dombrant running over the diminutive Billy Burns set the tone for a game that was more hard and straight than fluid and expansive. The English fly-half was shaken but not subbed.
Dombrant himself is becoming increasingly impressive – so physical, so fast, and with a deftness of touch that defies his frame – the number eight’s clash with Marcel Coetzee (the South African was pin-balling players left, right and centre himself) was a highlight in a match that lacked them. Kunitani deserves an honourable mention too, for some barnstorming runs and incredible hits.
It was Ulster who proved the more ambitious early on, sometimes to their own detriment. Both teams initially seemed as they had come to play, but conditions were poor, the match was error strewn and Harlequins in particular gave away far too many penalties. In the end, the first half became cagey, scrappy, a game that looked set to collapse into a series of box kicks, missed touch finders and knock-ons, rather than running rugby.
Then, at the end of a first half that looked set to end 3-3, Ulster found some ingenuity. They had been showing signs of kicking into life, putting the ball through the phases and slowly finding some rhythm towards the end of the half. Finally, at last, a touch of quality.
From a scrum deep in their own half Ulster ran a wonderful backline move, with McCloskey finding Burns out the back, and the fly half showing an impressive turn of pace to make the outside break before finding Jacob Stockdale running hard on his shoulder.
In the open field now, the ever-impressive Irish international found his winger, Matt Faddes, who in turn put the supporting Cooney away to crash over for an incredible score (in fact, I highly recommend you search for a video).
Early in the second period McCloskey chipped through from centre field for his partner Luke Marshall to run in and score, and the game was gone for ‘Quins. With the rain lashing down an arm-wrestle ensued, in which Harlequins were forced to chase the game.
They did so valiantly, but ultimately to no avail. Bar a consolation score for Quins, their opponents Ulster controlled proceedings well, Cooney scored another, this time an opportunistic fly-hack through, followed a bonus point score from the Kiwi, Faddes.
Coming off a lost Quins lineout, swift hands put Faddes away in the corner, before Quins let in a soft fifth, Tom O’Toole driving over a minute from time to secure a well deserved 34-10 victory.
Written by Joe Ronan.