It goes without saying this was an epic. Another. And in this era of the comeback, who should be crowned as the English champions but a team that had seemed in pieces only a few months ago, their coach gone, their form ruined? Harlequins became English rugby’s unlikeliest champions – not the first to prevail from fourth place, perhaps, but undoubtedly the first to have found themselves in such seemingly hopeless positions throughout this season, right up to last weekend and the 28-0 deficit that needs no introduction.
Where is Paul Gustard now? Well, polishing some unlikely silverware of his own, actually, as defence coach of Benetton Treviso, newly crowned champions of the Rainbow Cup. But this gong is of rather more substance. Did Gustard lay the foundations, or was this turnaround all the more remarkable for the ruins he left behind?
We will never know. Who cares? In the end, Twickenham’s 10,000 supporters made as much racket as any crowd at this old stadium, as Harlequins ended up on the right side of the ledger after the lead had changed hands four times, comeback after comeback. Now it seems so obvious Quins were to win.
Where to begin the narrative? Perhaps on day one, across the road, when Exeter travelled to the Stoop and smashed them 33-3. Or maybe that day in January when Gustard went, leaving Quins in seventh with two wins from six. Or let us fast-forward to around 2pm last weekend, when they were 28-0 down after half an hour of their semi-final at Bristol.
Surely after that 100-minute epic, this would prove a challenge too far: no less than a final against Exeter, champions and not the sort to be cut up like Bristol are; hell, like Quins are. Well, they surprised us there too by mixing it up front with the Chiefs, Joe Marler once again defying the laws of prop forwards by sticking it out to the end with another display of substance and belligerence.
For those inherently distrustful of the sort of outlandish rugby Quins peddled last week, this was a meaty affair from the off, the sort rugby types nod vigorously along to. And it was no less compelling to witness.
Quins set the tone by kicking their first penalty to the corner and scoring from it. All five tries in the first half were close-range affairs. Quins’s third, five minutes after the clock turned red, was the most flamboyant, Marcus Smith turning the ball inside to Alex Dombrandt from all of seven metres. But both sides were merely tuning up.
Quins’s fourth followed four minutes into the second half and it was a symphony of movement, one trio dazzling down the right and another down the left before André Esterhuizen finished in the corner. But that was suddenly a sizeable lead for Quins, 12 points, at a worryingly early stage of the game. We all know what happens to sizeable leads these days.
Sure enough, Exeter upped their game. Sam Simmonds scored his mandatory try before the Chiefs took a turn at the pyrotechnics to release Ollie Devoto for their fourth. It seemed Exeter were in the ascendancy now. A Joe Simmonds penalty stretched their lead to a whopping five points.
What were they thinking? Quins were bound to react. And how they did. Louis Lynagh’s two tries in the last 10 minutes were fabulous. Now they had a lead – nine points with three to play. Cue Exeter, Stuart Hogg over with two to play.
At some point, though, even comebacks must end. Exeter spilled the ball to leave English rugby with its most extraordinary champions yet.
The 77 tries Quins conceded in the regular season – from only 21 matches – is 19 more than the next most generous finalists. They have shipped another 10 in the knockout stages too.
But they have never quit, either each match or the manner in which they play. The masters of the comeback have proved the masters of this season. How else could it have ended?