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Harlequins 36 Castres 33
There are easier ways for Harlequins to win matches, but then they wouldn't be as fun as the heart-stopping finishes they seem to enjoy producing. This was another ridiculous late victory to add to their growing collection, but spare a thought for a fantastic Castres performance.
How many times have French sides travelled in the Champions Cup and wilted before kick-off. Castres were spirited, physical and unbowed when Harlequins took the lead, battling until the end when a string of – to be diplomatic – tight decisions went against them, none more so than the winning try from Alex Dombrandt, driving his way over with the final play of the game. The Harlequins captain was initially ruled to be short of the line, only for replays to show he had just about made contact. That followed a potentially missed forward pass from Smith, plus a turnover penalty which Castres were never awarded.
"That call at the TMO could have gone either way," conceded Harlequins senior coach Tabai Matson referring to Dombrandt's try. "[Castres] were cheering because they felt the ball was short. And that may have been fair as well."
Castres, third in the Top 14, should depart however with their heads held high even if their Champions Cup adventure is over, having scored five tries and given Harlequins a real fright. Dombrandt's winning score ensured Harlequins will finish as one of the top seeds – behind Leicester on points difference in Pool B – and gain a favourable draw in the last 16, with Dombrandt's hat-trick taking him up to 11 tries for the season.
What might have been for Castres had their fly-half Ben Botica, the former Harlequin, not missed four conversions and squandered a golden try-scoring chance as well when he dropped the ball over the line in the second half.
For Matson, the late victories are still taking some adjustment. "I'm not getting used to them but I understand that it seems to be the way here. I don't agree with it but it seems to be the way!
"We get to close the European pool stages with four wins and we’re through to the second stages… but jeepers. It was going to take someone like Dommers or Marcus [Smith] to do something special at the end, but they found a way."
A wild first half ended with Castres leading narrowly 22-23 having initially opened up a 0-13 lead, but the highlights belonged to Harlequins including a bizarre try for Huw Jones. Tommy Allan's grubber kick was hacked on by Andre Esterhuizen, with the ball landing in the lap of a hapless Castres wing Antoine Zeghdar. Juggling the ball while hovering in mid-air under his own posts – like a bit of prey – he was clattered into by Esterhuizen, spilling possession with Jones on hand to score his first try for the club.
Viliami Taulani's try was a more poignant moment. It has been an emotional week for the club's Tongan flanker after the tragic disaster in his home country last weekend. Fittingly he crashed over for Harlequins' third try.
Three minutes into the second half and Harlequins had their bonus point and the lead, Dombrandt strolling his way over for one of the easiest scores of his career after good work from Louis Lynagh down the opposite wing.
But Castres once again replied, Botica's excellent cross-field kick finding Filipo Nakosi in acres of space to secure their try bonus point.
Botica then nearly scored a gem against his old club, hot-stepping his way through only to desperately drop the ball over the line as he went to place it with one hand. He was reprieved – Adrea Cocagi powering over for Castres' fifth try after their maul was stopped, putting them back in front at 29-33.
With Harlequins trailing by four they turned to England fly-half Smith for more magic, but initially it appeared the supplies had run out. Until Dombrandt's desperately tight finish killed off Castres' hopes, and kept Harlequins unbeaten in Europe.
Scoring sequence: 0-3 Botica pen, 0-8 Barlot, 0-13 Zeghdar try, 5-13 Dombrandt try, 5-16 Botica pen, 10-16 Jones try, 12-16 Botica con, 17-16 Taulani try, 19-16 Botica con, 19-21 Kockott try, 19-23 Botica con, 22-23 Allan pen, 27-23 Dombrandt try, 29-23 Allan con, 29-28 Nakosi try, 29-33 Cocagi try, 34-33 Dombrandt try, 36-33 Smith con
Harlequins: N David; L Lynagh, H Jones, A Esterhuizen, C Murley (J Marchant 46); T Allan (M Smith 66), S Steele (L Gjaltema 48); J Marler (S Garcia Bott 63), J Musk (S Riley 44), S Kerrod (M Wilson 38), D Lamb, H Tizard (G Hammond 74), V Taulani (A White 53), L Wallace, A Dombrandt (c).
Castres: T Larregain (L le Brun 25); A Zeghdar, P Aguillon (V Botitu 58), A Cocagi, F Nakosi; B Botica, R Kockott (J Fernandez 63); A Tichit (J Nostadt 46), G Barlot (c, P Ngauamo ), A Guillamon (M Tierney 46), F Vanverberghe, J Whetton (T Hannoyer 46, J Raisuqe 74), N Champion de Crespigny, M Kafatolu, K Kornath.
Referee: M Adamson.