Despite a wonderful campaign in which they have surpassed all expectations by a considerable distance, the odds were not in Harlequins favour heading into Saturday’s Aviva Premiership final against Leicester Tigers. Their opponents were justifiable favourites on the basis of unparalleled Twickenham know-how and a seemingly irresistible momentum that had seen them plunder six bonus-point victories from the final seven regular league fixtures.
More remarkable, then, was the manner in which the league’s table-toppers clinched the trophy with a 30-23 win. In truth, was only that close because of bloody-minded East Midlands grit. Chris Robshaw was effervescent, storming his way around the playing surface like a man possessed – a flawless fit for his summer role as England captain.
Joe Marler keeps getting scarier, Nick Evans was impossibly cool in the scorching heat and, one errant lineout throw aside, Joe Gray was a pest that wouldn’t back down. Behind the scenes, Conor O’Shea’s insistence on a frenetic, all-action strategy was admirably ballsy. However, a more diminutive figure stood taller than everyone. A spell in the wilderness clearly makes you hungry. And Danny Care was starving.
At the end of a very difficult season, the likely lad from Yorkshire found a significant chunk of redemption. He sniped exceptionally, exploiting the space close to the ruck as the game’s pace pulled defenders wide. His service was decisive and accurate as usual.
There were intelligent touches with the boot and evidence of the essential half-back capability to make correct decisions under immense pressure – the dart that incited Manu Tuilagi’s contentious tip-tackle and Quins’ first points set the tone for a sparky afternoon. All of this was very welcome – though Lee Dickson gave a good account of himself in the latter half of the Six Nations after replacing an out-of-sorts Ben Youngs, Stuart Lancaster’s scrum-halves have been more unsteady than spectacular.
Having said that, it was a very encouraging weekend overall for each of England’s number nine shirt candidates. Youngs burst out of hibernation in the last twenty minutes of the final, setting up a try for Anthony Allen to give Leicester a sniff. Dickson directed proceedings against the Barbarians with typical volume and enthusiasm, setting Chris Ashton on the way to his hat-trick with sumptuously-timed inside ball. Even Richard Wigglesworth – he of the post-World Cup knee-wrecking – crossed the whitewash on Sunday to a chorus of HQ cheers. Care was still the best of the lot by a comfortable margin.
In the last few weeks, Lancaster’s prodigal pupil has made some promises. There will, apparently, be no more alcohol and a renewed sense of responsibility. Just as well really, because over a winter of discontent Care seemed intent on sloshing his skills down the drain.
Four months saw four arrests for various misdemeanours and – bearing the brunt of a shambolic World Cup that he painfully missed through injury – the 25 year-old was thrust out into the cold. Of course it is academic to speculate how England would have fared in New Zealand with Care, but it is doubtful that the former Leeds Tyke would have floundered in the same manner that Youngs did.
A key factor of Martin Johnson’s success in the 2011 Six Nations was how Care and his Leicester (then) superior combined within the match-day 22, the former complementing the latter from the bench to great effect. Such a blend has been palpably absent in the past twelve months, during which time – fitness and discipline permitting – Harlequins’ cheekiest chappy has oozed class.
A sliding, left-footed grubber into the path of Gonzalo Camacho for the last-gasp try that won the Amlin Challenge Cup against Stade Francais a year ago was a microcosmic parcel of all his skills – sparky running, vision, a delicate touch and, most importantly, the audacious confidence to put all three into practice.
After sending this loud message to the man at the helm, who knows his qualities better than most, Care should add three more caps to his current collection of 32 on the hard tracks of South Africa. There, his pacey feet and quicker mind should prove extremely valuable.
The superb David Walsh wrote on Sunday that “most people deserve a second chance, especially if they seize it.” Care may not quite have seized his yet, but on a sublime Saturday in the sun, he certainly did enough to warrant one.