Ford kicks Leicester to victory over Harlequins to extend winning run
Leicester will turn their attentions to Europe buoyed by claiming the scalp of the Premiership champions to continue their 100% winning start to the season and further establish themselves as England’s leading lights at present.
It was not particularly pretty but defensive reliance and a cool head from their ringmaster George Ford were enough to edge past Harlequins and claim a ninth consecutive win – a run of form which will have their continental rivals taking note.
It was Ford’s first outing since his move to Sale next season was announced and though he has been in commanding form, perhaps that further sharpened the senses. For as Harlequins threatened one of their trademark comebacks after a stunning individual try from Louis Lynagh, it was Ford’s authority that kept the Tigers on top. He finished with 11 points and perhaps proved a point against those suggesting he ought to have shown more loyalty to his current employers. Maybe Eddie Jones too, given Ford outplayed his opposite number Marcus Smith.
“My sole focus is for this club, I’ve been here a long time, I love it here and I’ll do everything I can for the rest of the year,” said Ford. “The decision is made but I’m 100% focused and committed to Leicester and loving it here and that will carry on being the same.”
Lynagh’s try on 63 minutes had brought Harlequins back to within two points and set up a nervous finish but Smith – who had earlier spent 10 minutes in the sin-bin – missed the conversion and Harlequins were left to rue another narrow defeat, having lost by three points to London Irish last time out.
They are missing a bit of spark at the moment but their defensive showing at a sold-out Welford Road suggests they will be in the mix again at the end of the season.
On paper this was a mouth-watering clash full of individual head-to-heads with an international narrative. Ford shone brighter than Smith, Joe Marler and Ellis Genge went toe-to-toe throughout and Freddie Steward again impressed on his 21st birthday but perhaps the most eye-catching performance came from England’s evergreen scrum-half Ben Youngs. He was the most dangerous back on show and it was his excellent grubber kick which teed up Harry Potter for Leicester’s try.
It was far from a classic, however – defences were on top and the rain did not help – and in many ways it echoed Exeter’s narrow victory over Saracens 24 hours previously. In the early rounds of the season maybe running rugby was the order of the day but the December weather will always be a leveller and ultimately Leicester coped the better. As a result they travel to Bordeaux for their Champions Cup opener on Saturday having opened up a nine-point gap at the top of the Premiership.
Ford and Smith notched two penalties apiece inside the first half-hour before the latter was sent to the sin-bin for mindlessly diving through a ruck and knocking the ball from Youngs’s hands. Ford kicked the resulting penalty but the Leicester No 8, Jasper Wiese, was also shown a yellow card for a no-arms tackle soon after and Harlequins finished the half the stronger.
Indeed, they really ought to have scored the opening try when Huw Jones went for the line himself rather than using the two-man overlap outside him. It was a missed opportunity that summed up Harlequins’ day and Leicester were 10 points to the good early in the second half when Youngs’s delightful grubber put Potter’s try on a plate.
Another Smith penalty brought Harlequins back to within touching distance before Lynagh’s moment of magic further cut the deficit – the winger racing on to his own kick down the right in the tightest of spaces. Harlequins had their chances, notably fluffing a lineout near halfway with the clock in the red, but they had been unable to build towards a grandstand finish with Ford’s spiral bombs wreaking havoc in the rain.
“We missed our opportunities and they found a way to get the job done,” said the Harlequins coach, Tabai Matson. “It’s disappointing but you’ve got to be at your best to win here.”