Marcus Smith excelled for Harlequins as part of a superb team performance

Credit: Getty Images

An epic final at Twickenham represented a fitting climax to Harlequins’ compelling season. Their extraordinary resurgence, culminating in the most glorious fashion with a first Premiership title since 2012, has been down to many factors.

Many of them shone through in what was – and had to be – an exceptional team performance to beat Exeter Chiefs. Rob Baxter’s reigning champions did not lie down. Harlequins beat them with a display that combined courage, conviction, skill and sharp strategy.

Tone-setting half-backs

Danny Care would admit that defence has not been his major strength over a long career. However, his early harrying, almost channelling Faf de Klerk, carved out Harlequins’ first try-scoring opportunity.

Exeter’s midfield three – Joe Simmonds, Ollie Devoto and Henry Slade – are all fine distributors. Here, in the third minute, Chiefs have a chance to outflank Harlequins with runners loaded towards the far touchline.

Care’s one-man press allows him to rush Simmonds and Devoto, who starts behind Richard Capstick:

This angle tracks the scrum-half for two phases, showing how he times his run to beat the offside line and causes Devoto to throw a poor pass that bounces into touch:

Danny Care defence

Interestingly, Harlequins were fairly direct in attack early on. With their respective first touches, Marcus Smith had a dart from first-receiver and Care sniped around the fringes.

At this lineout, André Esterhuizen carries. Next, Care feeds Smith behind Scott Baldwin. Right wing Louis Lynagh and full-back Tyrone Green loop around their fly-half…

…and the latter receives a pass before jinking inside Alex Cuthbert:

Care tracks across to the ruck. Then he just pauses slightly on the ball. The shrewd move, effective against aggressive defences, encourages Jonny Hill to jump the gun. He creeps offside in midfield:

Danny Care offside

Harlequins’ clarity of thought is obvious. Hooker Baldwin immediately points to the corner:

And Smith’s touch-finder is perfect, setting up a five-metre lineout:

Marcus Smith touch-finder

Skipper Stephan Lewies in the target and a powerful drive can only be stopped by Hill’s illegal side entry:

A penalty try results and Harlequins have the blistering start they would have craved. Their ascendancy did not last though.

Thriving in chaos

Exeter’s muscular reply comprised two tries, with Smith also yellow-carded as a result of concerted Chiefs pressure.

This next passage begins with 14-man Harlequins throwing into a lineout on the edge of their own 22:

They stay calm, claiming the throw and eking out metres with a driving maul. Care hoists a box-kick that is chased by Lynagh…

…who rises above Tom O’Flaherty to claim:

Lynagh, just 20, had committed an error that led to Exeter’s second try. This response was resilient.

He barely put a foot wrong over the rest of the match and his claim presented Harlequins with a broken-field transition situation. Via Care, Esterhuizen, Joe Marchant and Green, the ball is spread to Cadan Murley.

And, even though the left wing’s offload does not go into Harlequins hands…

Harlequins break-out

…the outstanding Marchant tackles Devoto. Green and Jack Nowell are pitted in a race to the breakdown…

…and Care arrives to help his full-back force a penalty:

They go to touch once more, and earn two more penalties. From the second one, in the absence of goal-kicker Smith, they opt for a five-metre scrum.

Despite looking slightly frantic without their fly-half to steer them, they eventually score through Wilco Louw’s barnstorming shunt:

💪 Wilco is a unit. #COYQ #EXEvHAR #GallagherPremFinal

— Harlequins 🃏 (@Harlequins) June 26, 2021

The scrummaging of Louw and Joe Marler then incited more momentum.

Set-piece power and slicing runs

The sight of Exeter’s scrum creaking felt jarring, and was also testament to the form of Marler and Louw. Here, in the 41st minute, the former causes Chiefs tighthead prop Harry Williams to pop up:

Harlequins surge through, earning a penalty, and go to touch. This time, there is a different strike-move on the back of a strong maul. Esterhuizen pulls the ball back to Smith behind Marchant…

…and Green is sent on an arcing run. Follow Care and openside flanker Jack Kenningham:

Green jinks inside Slade and offloads to Lynagh out of Devoto’s tackle:

Care scampers across and, once more, Harlequins bounce back in the opposite direction:

His pass sails across Esterhuizen to the tireless Kenningham. Meanwhile, Care is calling for an offside penalty because Exeter’s forwards have not managed to retreat behind the back foot of the previous breakdown:

Referee Matthew Carley obliges, and Lewies wastes no time in calling for a scrum:

Watch Alex Dombrandt’s try:

Through comes Alex Dombrandt! ⚡️

Marcus Smith spots the pass and the No.8 bursts through for @Harlequins! 🃏

Statement made!

🏆 #GallagherPremFinal

— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) June 26, 2021

Now we will rewind. He had peeled himself away from the previous breakdown, initially heading to the far side. Look at Exeter’s defence. Devoto has spotted Smith lurking behind his forwards and is heading beyond Alec Hepburn:

This angle shows the hole, between Williams and Jack Maunder, that Devoto is trying to plug.

The presence of Louw and Baldwin ensure that Hepburn and Williams have to stay narrow, but Smith is demanding the ball and Dombrandt knows that his fly-half will suck in defenders.

The number eight hunts Smith’s right shoulder…

…and is rewarded with a try as Smith lures Devoto out of the defensive line to create a huge hole:

Alex Dombrandt angle

Surely it is time to see if Dombrandt’s intelligent support running can cause problems in the Test arena.

Scanning for weak spots

There is a ruthlessness to Smith’s playmaking that was in evidence for Harlequins’ fourth try. Here, in the 44th minute, James Chisholm carries into Williams and Hill. Louw is on hand…

…and clatters Hill in the clear-out:

The collision leaves Hill reeling:

Smith and O’Flaherty then exchange kicks. Watch how the next 30 seconds play out:

Magnificent @Harlequins! 🃏

From one end of the field to the other in the blink of an eye!

🏆 #GallagherPremFinal

— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) June 26, 2021

The offloading interplay between Green, Lynagh and Kenningham is slick. But more crucial to the try is how Harlequins identify Hill, who had been receiving treatment from a physio, on the edge of Exeter’s front line.

Smith obviously calls for a pull-back from Chisholm. Marchant, Murley and Esterhuizen have back-pedalled to give Harlequins width:

A looping pass from Smith lobs Hill and creates the telling break:

Marcus Smith looping pass

The chance is taken clinically once the attack breaches the Exeter 22. As enterprising and intrepid as they were in attack, Harlequins also defended doggedly.

Desperate defence

This sequence begins in the 69th minute with Exeter leading 31-26 courtesy of two further tries from Sam Simmonds and Ollie Devoto, plus Joe Simmonds’ penalty. Harlequins are on the ropes.

After a tackle from Marler on Stuart Hogg, Exeter still have their opponents scrambling with men in space towards the near touchline as Joe Simmonds feeds Slade under pressure from Dombrandt.

Kenningham, Luke Northmore and Lynagh are the men to watch:

Sam Simmonds is eventually released. However, Lynagh lassoes him in a one-on-one tackle for the second time in the game:

There is an in-field offload, but the ball evades Don Armand. Northmore had tracked the back-rower anyway:

Kenningham is the man to mop up, making his own luck with his industry off the ball:

From there, Care box-kicks. Lynagh is on his feet to lead the chase, with Dombrandt and Joe Gray following up. Chisholm is buried in the breakdown. Remember that:

Lynagh trips Hogg…

…with Dombrandt and Gray completing the tackle.

Then, on the following phase, Northmore chop-tackles Hill and Chisholm is awarded with a penalty after managing what Carley calls “a clear lift of the ball”:

Chisholm breakdown turnover

At the time, it seemed like another significant momentum swing.

Backline balance and Smith’s trickery

Northmore moved into midfield after replacing Murley, shifting Marchant out to the wing. But the Harlequins backline maintained its balance.

Indeed, Northmore’s pass to Dombrandt foreshadows Lynagh’s first try:

Fifteen seconds later, Smith cracks open Chiefs. With Exeter bunched tightly around the ruck and understaffed on this near side, he scurries around a flat pod of three forwards. Look at Lynagh calling for the ball:

It does not matter that Chisholm’s pull-back is messy. Smith’s goose-step sucks in Stu Townsend and Lynagh’s out-to-in angle is enough to beat O’Flaherty:

They're at it again! 🃏

This @Harlequins side do not know when they're beaten! 💪

The Marcus Smith step! 🤤

🏆 #GallagherPremFinal

— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) June 26, 2021

Four minutes later comes a contrasting piece of distribution. Again, Smith loiters behind his forwards, who are joined by hefty centres Northmore and Esterhuizen.

Green stays close to Smith, with Lynagh in the near 15-metre channel. Exeter’s area of weakness, the one that Smith is eyeing while his heavier teammates pound away, is the seam between Joe Simmonds on the edge of Chiefs’ front line and O’Flaherty.

The latter must be able to swing around into the back-field if necessary, leaving Joe Simmonds’ outside shoulder as a vulnerable spot:

Sure enough, Smith darts in that direction and calls for the ball. He looks up, clocking his opposite man:

A wider angle of the same moment is helpful. The space for Green is beyond the three Exeter defenders pressing hard, to O’Flaherty’s right. Again, Lynagh is calling for the ball:

Smith’s flat pass sends Green on precisely the right line to fade past Joe Simmonds…

Marcus Smith fade pass

…and Lynagh is able to score from the two-on-one that results. Amid the madness, two cool touchline conversions from Smith proved critical as well.

Legacy of 2012 meets the future

Four members of the Harlequins squad from this weekend had featured nine years ago in a 30-23 victory over Leicester Tigers. How fitting that they sealed this triumph, too.

With the clock in the red, Gray and replacement tighthead prop Will Collier forced a fumble from Jannes Kirsten…

…and Matt Symons’ pass was collected by Marler:

A phase later, Care dinked into touch:

This represented a nice coincidence. More importantly, though, it encapsulated how Harlequins have re-established their identity after an uncertain few years.

They exude freedom and fearlessness, but that is bolstered by steel and set-piece solidity. After this epic final, their title defence next season will be fun to follow.

Match images courtesy of BT Sport