Harlequins threw off the shackles to begin life after Paul Gustard with a thumping six-try win over Wasps and breathe new life into their season.
Inspired by the fly-half Marcus Smith, who finished with 17 points, the visitors ruthlessly dismantled last season’s finalists in a manner that left you wondering why they cannot perform like this every week.
Indeed, Gustard could be forgiven for wondering precisely that and just where this first-half performance has been for the past few weeks. There have been rumblings of some friction behind the scenes but a showing this committed, this aggressive, only serves to highlight how glaringly absent those qualities have been of late.
The Wasps director of rugby Lee Blackett saw it coming – predicting in the week that teams can be at their most dangerous when a head coach has just departed, and he should know having overseen such a remarkable transformation in Wasps last season after Dai Young had left the club.
Sometimes all that is needed is a new voice and in this instance it was undoubtedly Jerry Flannery for Harlequins – the Irishman appointed as lineout coach last June roaring instructions throughout – but the turnaround was considerable.
Smith comfortably outshone his opposite man in Jacob Umaga – another young No10 who seems to have moved above him in the England pecking order – and Harlequins will be desperate the 21-year-old sees his long-term future at the club amid interest from elsewhere. “He’s got more talent in his little finger than I ever had,” said the former All Black fly-half and attack coach Nick Evans. “He wants to play for England. If he keeps performing like that I’ve got no doubt he’ll get there. I definitely hope he stays with performances like that. We spoke this week about moving on. The senior players were really good with that. We had a duty to put some pride and passion back into the club.”
Smith was far from alone in impressing for Harlequins with Will Evans, Danny Care, Alex Dombrandt, Louis Lynagh and James Lang all scoring tries before a penalty try in the final stages rounded things off. The visitors were dominant at the scrum – helped by the presence of Joe Marler after his decision to withdraw from England’s Six Nations squad – and their relish for defensive graft was clear. Blackett was unsure as to why his side had been so thoroughly outplayed – this was their worst home defeat since 2011 – but certainly the two-week break came at the wrong time for Wasps given they had won their last five matches. They were weakened too with Joe Launchbury injured and Jack Willis, Dan Robson and Paolo Odogwu away with England but that is a problem Blackett will have to get used to in the coming weeks.
“We lost every single battle there was,” said Blackett. “There’s no hiding place. They were better, I will give them credit, I thought they played extremely well. We feel we were dominated in every area. There’s not one area where I can say it was positive. We’re really disappointed with how we’ve come back from the two-week break. We’ve come off five off the bounce, we’re disappointed with the performance but we can’t forget how good we can be.”
Harlequins thundered into their opponents from the first whistle and Will Evans had already knocked on when well placed before scoring the opening try – the visitors’ pressure proving too much for Wasps to handle. Two Smith penalties either side of Care’s score in the right-hand corner handed Harlequins a 20-0 lead with Lima Sopoaga’s penalty just before the interval finally getting Wasps on the board.
Dombrandt’s close-range try 10 minutes into the second half felt decisive and though Zach Kibirige registered out wide on the right after a concerted spell of pressure from Wasps, another Smith penalty quickly put the kibosh on any potential comeback. Lynagh – son of the former Australia fly-half Michael – had the Harlequins coaches off their seats with an intercept try and while Tom Willis notched Wasps’ second he finished the match in the sin-bin – adjudged the offender for the penalty try. It made for quite the scoreline but Harlequins managed 49 points on the first day of the season at Northampton and they will know better than to declare a new dawn just yet.