Joe Marler was the cornerstone of Harlequins' victory over Bristol

Credit: GETTY IMAGES

In the thick of Harlequins’ mesmerising comeback over Bristol, with both sides absorbed in the tightrope finale, no one had time nor the presence of mind for anything as rational as thought. But, among the chaos and confusion, if a moment of clarity had presented itself, then reflection should have immediately turned to the front-rowers. Poor devils.

The conditions for the heavies were far from auspicious: 100 minutes played, first-phase tries, end-to-end attacking and back-three players dominating the post-match player ratings and statistics, in ordinary circumstances this match would have reduced front-rowers to the passenger seat, doubled over and gasping on the oxygen at every break in play.

But, as we all know, this was no ordinary match, with no ordinary circumstances. Within the blockbuster thriller, within the overturning of a 28-0 deficit, Harlequins’ props, usually resigned to a supporting role in such events, became as prominent in the plot’s denouement as any hot-stepping three-quarter or pass-flinging half-back.

And leading the front-row pre-eminence, as ever, was loosehead Joe Marler. It was an extraordinary Saturday for Marler – but not just on the field. Harlequins gave their star prop the star treatment, flying Marler to the semi-final via helicopter on Saturday morning because his wife, Daisy, had given birth to their fourth child on Thursday; Quins wanted him to spend as much time as possible with both mother and child before the biggest game of their season. How that paid off.

Marler was phenomenal for Harlequins against Bristol, seeing off the considerable challenge of England (and former club) team-mate, Kyle Sinckler, before ensuring John Afoa had an uncomfortable afternoon off the bench. The size of Harlequins’ comeback broke a Premiership record, but their loosehead broke one, too. The 94 minutes (as well as uncounted injury time) that Marler spent toiling on the Ashton Gate turf is the longest a prop has stayed on the field in one Premiership match since Opta’s records began in 2008. With displays such as this, it remains a mystery as to how Marler could have been overlooked for this summer’s Lions tour. It simply cannot be related to his on-field form.

Prop idol: How Harlequins’ front row ignited a comeback

The loosehead was a diamond in Harlequins’ immensely rough first-half performance, but it was after the break where Marler came into his element, emerging from half-time with a glint in his eye and a smirk on his face.

He had the bit between his teeth. The two turnovers he won during his 94-minute shift were more than any other Harlequin; and no Bristol player made more, either. The below shows the energy and momentum he brought. Tracking back for a kick might be meat-and-drink to any flanker or back, but to see a gnarly loosehead prop playing with such intelligence and dynamism would only have boosted morale.

Marler drop

Marler’s work-rate never dropped. Bristol fly-half Callum Sheedy hoodwinked the Quins defence into thinking he would drop a goal for victory, late in normal time, but wily Marler was on to him.

Marler tackle Sheedy

And how’s this for work-rate. With the 80 minutes almost up, Harlequins find themselves on the counter-attack, with momentum, searching for a late, miraculous winning try. Joe Marchant and Tyrone Green probe down the left, eating up the yards, and who is the second player (and only second by a whisker!) there in support. Marler, of course.

Marler work-rate

Marler’s poise continued into added time, too. The mental sharpness and athleticism he showed here to get down onto the deck in extra-time, after 80 minutes in one of the sport’s most heavy-duty positions, was staggering. What does it say to you as a Harlequins team-mate when your 30-year-old loosehead, who has played the entire match, is beating the Bristol flankers – and your own – to a loose ball on the floor? Some fillip.

Marler mental sharpness

Work-rate as a prop is all well and good, but if the bread-and-butter – the scrum – is fallible then the rest is pointless. Thankfully, Marler excels in this regard, too, with his chef-d’oeuvre coming in injury time of the first half of extra time. 

Quins showed tremendous courage, turning down the easy three points and back themselves to claim a match-defining try. That try, scored eventually by Green, came off the back of two consecutive scrum penalties for Harlequins. The visitors took the first period of extra time into a sixth extra minute as they bludgeoned their way to the line.

Final scrum

It was not just Marler who led Harlequins magnificently from the front, however. Tighthead Wilco Louw had a barnstorming match, and replacement tighthead Will Collier, as much a stalwart of this Harlequins contingent as Marler, played his part, too. 

Bristol possess arguably the finest two tighthead props in the Premiership, yet Harlequins’ scrum, marshalled by former Wales and Lions prop Adam Jones, was too much for them on several occasions.

Quins’ phenomenal scrum

This was Collier’s first scrum of the game, at a crucial moment when fly-half Marcus Smith had just put his restart out on the full. What a welcome – and what a time to put your side back on the front foot.

Quins scrum 1

And in Louw, Marler had a suitable partner-in-crime on the tighthead. Louw’s defensive mobility in tackling Bristol wing Luke Morahan (below) and then centre Semi Radradra (below that) – after both Louis Lynagh and Danny Care had failed – was remarkable.

Louw

Louw tackle