Esterhuizen try secures narrow victory for Harlequins as Racing disappoint

You might expect a feast of attacking rugby when two of Europe’s great entertainers lock horns but this was a famine – played out in a flood.

Harlequins will not care, for this was a gritty victory, delivered by André Esterhuizen’s second-half try and founded on defensive resilience, against a thoroughly disappointing Racing 92 side. Equally, however, it was the sort of evening that makes you long for spring.

Harlequins were helped by a red card to Racing’s No 8 Kitione Kamikamica after 50 minutes but after going down narrowly in Durban last week, this kickstarts their European campaign. Racing meanwhile, have lost their opening two matches and still have to play Leinster away – for the three-time finalists this is not looking likely to be their year.

All be told, it was a rancid match, played out in even worse conditions. He wasn’t having the best of games but that Finn Russell – whose lucrative move to Bath next season is set to be confirmed this week – was replaced after an hour summed up that it was not a day for players of his ilk. Empty seats are rarely seen here and though some supporters were evidently more interested in events in Qatar, some no doubt put off by the weather, the fact that there were plenty to be seen only adds currency to the debate that this competition is losing its allure. If organisers had hoped these two might put on a show to bust that theory, they were sorely disappointed.

In the positives column for Harlequins was the performance of the 20-year-old Fin Baxter at loosehead on his first start, named man of the match for his showing up against far more heralded opposition while Danny Care’s experience – as is so often the case – was significant too.

As far as the neutrals are concerned, the hope can only be that things will improve in the reverse fixture in January in Racing’s space-age indoor stadium.

“It wasn’t the prettiest and we did our best to ruin it but we’re back in the hunt again,” said the Harlequins coach Tabai Matson. “It’s probably one of the most pleasing things when you have to defend, people putting their heads into hard places, and there was no shying away from that.”

Just as they did in South Africa last week, Harlequins struck early with the opening try after three minutes through George Head, who showed a turn of pace not usually associated with a hooker to take Care’s flat pass and burst clear. Racing’s defending left little to be desired but Head took his chance wonderfully, Tommy Allan converting for a 7-0 lead.

A penalty from Russell got Racing on the board before he missed one he really ought to have scored but Harlequins were equally rueful soon after, unable to take advantage of a series of scrum penalties a few metres out from the visitors’ line. Racing made them pay with their opening try in the final minute of the half, finished by Kamikamica from close range, after they had turned the screw in the Harlequins 22, enough to go in at half-time with a lead they barely deserved.

It lasted less than 10 minutes after the restart, however, with Esterhuizen running on to Care’s pass from the base of the scrum and bludgeoning his way over. Allan added the extras and just two minutes later Harlequins found themselves a man up when Kamikamica was sent off for a tip tackle on Nick David. It was unfortunate for Kamikamica in the sense that it was a dominant tackle on the onrushing fullback but given he lost control of David, who landed on his neck and shoulders, he could have no complaints.

It seemed to galvanise Racing, to inhibit Harlequins but the visitors grew ever desperate, aware of what a second successive defeat would mean for their hopes of qualification. Harlequins, led by Alex Dombrandt and Will Evans, were at least resolute in defence and held firm for the final half an hour, eking out the type of victory that they are hardly accustomed to but as a result one that will please their coaches all the more.

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