This may cause uproar, but Harlequins are yet to be truly tested this season. 14 from 14 is a remarkable start, considering that it has coincided with plenty of major injuries and a Rugby World Cup. Of their scalps so far, the most impressive is probably at Kingsholm against Gloucester in the Heineken Cup, with their other wins coming against normally strong sides depleted by the Rugby World Cup (Northampton, Leicester) or overcoming sides whose form and squad personnel do not match up (Worcester, Newcastle, Connacht) and those whose form has been inconsistent (London Irish, Exeter Chiefs, Bath and London Wasps).
For this reason, tonight’s clash is significant. Firstly, it will mean that possible critics such as myself will be forced to keep quiet. Secondly, a win will put Harlequins in good control of their group.
Venue: The Stoop, Twickenham
Referee: George Clancy
Given one of their sterner tests last weekend away at London Wasps, Quins continue their winning streak to leave them well set ahead of the Heineken Cup double header with Stade Toulousain. Last week’s success came without first choice centre pairing Jordan Turner-Hall and George Lowe, who will both be missing tonight, while in recent weeks Quins have welcomed back Ugo Monye and Danny Care from substantial injuries. It has been in the pack though where Quins have excelled this season, led by the excellent Chris Robshaw, with George Robson and Joe Gray putting together a high-quality lineout worthy of international recognition. Shorn of their best players out wide, expect them to keep it tight.
One of the great European teams, Stade arrive in London packed full of international and French talent. When a team goes out and signs Luke Burgess, Gurthrö Steenkamp and Luke McAlister, you know they mean business. Blend that foreign flavour with the heartbeat of French rugby in Thierry Dusautoir, Vincent Clerc, William Servat and Jean-Baptiste Poux, plus some guys who apparently weren’t good enough to go to the Rugby World Cup in Yannick Jauzion and Clément Poitrenaud, and it’s frankly petrifying. Domestically, Stade are top of the table by three points ahead of Clermont, having won 9 from 12 so far.
What to expect:
Forecast predicts no showers, so as long as the players cope with the cold then the game should be a classic. Quins will aim to keep it tight within the pack, working on the fringes to send runners through the spaces. They have offloaded brilliantly all season, with some of the handling in last weekend’s tie against Wasps truly excellent. If they can get into Toulouse around the ruck, with Robshaw and Easter carrying and offloading, then behind the first line should come opportunities.
Toulouse have more than enough to match Quins up front, but also quality in the backs. If I was Jauzion and Florian Fritz, I’d be bouncing at the prospect of taking on Benjamin Urdapilleta and Matt Hopper in the Quins midfield. Dusautoir will look to exploit Robshaw at the breakdown, whilst Census Johnston will unfortunately be on the other side of the scrum to his brother James, taking away a very tasty match-up. Toulouse have enough to quality to win this any way they want.
Head to Head: Nick Evans v Luke McAlister
Two All Blacks who watched October’s final on their televisions, both seem to enjoy their time in European Rugby. McAlister has won plenty of plaudits already down in Toulouse, with a couple of match-winning kicks the key to winning over a passionate crowd, whilst Evans will always be one of the greatest fly-halves Quins have ever seen wear the number 10 shirt, if not the greatest. What will matter tonight is who misses their kicks at goal.
Ones to Watch: George Robson & Thierry Dusautoir
Produce a stellar performance against Toulouse and Robson will boost his international credentials even further. Controlling the lineout and Harlequins impressive rolling mauls this season, his return from injury could not be timed better. As for Dusautoir, voted the best openside at the Rugby World Cup by the readers of The Rugby Blog, his performance in the final was one of the greatest I have ever seen. Leads by example, always competitive, a world class talent.
When a team keeps on winning, it’s hard to see when their run will stop. If Quins can get ahead early and make Toulouse work to get back in the game, then they have a very good chance. But Toulouse just have so much talent from 1 to 22. Harlequins will give it absolutely everything, but may just come up short. Stade by 3.
by Ben Coles