Soon after half-time the threat of total humiliation was hanging in the air for Harlequins. Driven forward by a dynamic display from Zach Mercer, the former Bath No 8, Montpellier’s potent mix of ruthless attack and bruising defense looked likely to overwhelm the Premiership champions. But after a resourceful second-half fightback when George Hammond, André Esterhuizen, Joe Marchant and Louis Lynagh all scored tries, Quins carry hope into the second leg at The Stoop on Saturday.
A sun-kissed stadium in the south of France appeared to be the perfect setting for hot-stepping Quins to showcase their expansive offloading game with Fabien Galthié, the grand slam-winning France coach, watching from the stands. But the first half became a harsh lesson for a side that had won their previous five Premiership matches. Tabai Matson, the Quins senior coach, had called Montpellier “the kickingest team in the French league” but the script in this clash of styles did not develop in the way he hoped.
“When we were down 34-0 it was pretty humiliating,” said Matson. “At half-time we knew there was going to be a response. It’s really clear what the task is now and the beauty is we’ve got another 80 minutes. We know a lot more about them now, so that’ll be really important leading into next Saturday.”
The visitors enjoyed no shortage of field position and possession in a scoreless first quarter but knock-ons, inaccurate passes and some indifferent tactical kicking made it a frustrating opening from the visitors’ perspective. Marcus Smith missed touch with an early penalty but the No 10’s inaccuracy with the boot would bring a far heavier punishment after Quins emerged from the opening 20 minutes with nothing, despite their territorial domination. A speculative Smith cross-kick was batted back by Kélian Galletier, with neither Lynagh nor Esterhuizen able to gather, and the ball popped up conveniently for the wing Gabriel Ngandebe to race to the try-line unopposed.
Momentum switched in favor of the French Top 14 leaders and, when Mercer pounced for a sniping score after half an hour, things took an even worse turn for Harlequins when Esterhuizen was shown a yellow card for what was deemed a deliberate knock-on in the preceding phase.
After a Danny Care kick rebounded off his teammate Joe Marler, Cobus Reinach capitalized on the resulting turnover to cross for Montpellier’s third try, before the prop Enzo Forletta popped up a pass to an overlapping Mercer, who sped for the corner and touched down his second and Montpellier’s fourth try. When Titi Lamositele forced his way over straight after the break, Quins were staring down the barrel at 34-0.
Unlikely recoveries have become their specialty, though, and Harlequins got on the board 10 minutes after half-time when Smith found his range with a perfect grubber kick for Hammond to touch down. Smart thinking by Lynagh with a quick tap soon allowed Esterhuizen to steam through a tackle and reach for the try-line.
When Lynagh burst through the Montpellier defense and fed Marchant, the center had plenty of work to do but found his way to the line with a jinking run and Smith added the extras. The Montpellier manager, Philippe Saint-André, demanded a TMO review for a potential forward pass by Lynagh but the officials were happy.
The Springbok fly-half Handré Pollard came off the bench to stroke over a couple of penalties but, when Lynagh streaked away to touch down under the posts for Harlequins’ fourth try, belief was visibly flooding back into the visitors. With a 14-point deficit to overturn, Matson’s side cannot afford to start so slowly a second time. But the comeback kings remain in the contest and with much more than a puncher’s chance.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism