Marcus Smith comes off second best as Harlequins leave it too late to shock Stormers

·5-min read
Marcus Smith improved as the match went on in Cape Town but he and his side were to end up short - Getty Images/EJ Langner
Marcus Smith improved as the match went on in Cape Town but he and his side were to end up short - Getty Images/EJ Langner

Stormers 32 Harlequins 28

This was always going to be a tough assignment for Harlequins. But against a Capetonian outfit that hasn’t lost at home since December 2021, they can be proud of the fight they showed as the mercury topped 30 degrees celsius in South Africa's capital. After a poor start, they should have wilted in the heat. But instead, they rallied, posting 21 points on the board in the final eight minutes of an enthralling contest. A trio of sensational scores - two of which were orchestrated by Marcus Smith - proved too little, too late.

Tabai Matson, the Harlequins head coach, had stressed his side needed to deliver one of their best performances yet if they were going to win their first ever knockout game in Europe. Smith would have been eager to heed that call and inspire his troops after losing out to his compatriot Owen Farrell in Harlequins’ defeat to Saracens last week. Had the match been a quarter of an hour longer, his side would have almost certainly won this contest.

The Harlequins’ playmaker was at the heart of every attacking move in a breathless last quarter, zipping a delicious pass out to Oscar Beard in the build up to Alex Dombrandt’s 77th minute try, before dinking a delightful chip over an increasingly ragged Stormers’ defensive line that Andre Esterhuizen latched onto. Joe Marchant scuttled over deep into the red zone to add further gloss to an invigorated Quins performance.

They will, however, wonder what might have been had they jolted into life sooner. That it took Smith nearly a quarter of an hour before he managed to even pass the ball - a reality that will make Steve Borthwick shudder - was indicative of the fast-paced game Stormers unleashed upon their London opposition. His midfield partnership with South African Esterhuizen, which was much raved about in the build up, was nullified for large periods by an outstanding Stomers’ defence whose line-speed and front-foot ball was custom-made for knockout rugby. Compared to Manie Libbok, Stormers' effervescent fly-half who stamped his mark all over the game from the off, he came out second best, despite growing into the contest.

No sooner had Harlequins got proceedings underway had Stormers split the tourists open to score inside an electrifying first minute. Spectators were still making their way to their seats inside the DHL Stadium by the time Deon Fourie slid over after a magical offload from Hacjivah Dayimani after Libbok’s cross-field kick caught Harlequins off guard.

Damian Willemse of the DHL Stormers scores a fantastic try - Getty Images/EJ Langner
Damian Willemse of the DHL Stormers scores a fantastic try - Getty Images/EJ Langner

To their credit, Harlequins issued the perfect response from the restart, hitting back immediately through Dombrandt who, still in the throes of rebuilding his brand after his underwhelming Six Nations campaign, peeled off the back of a maul to barge over.

Much had been made of the Stormers’ all-Springbok front row and how it would measure up to Joe Marler, Jack Walker and fellow South African Wilco Louw. It wasn’t quite the Steven Kitshoff versus Louw spectacle as billed, with a 40,000-strong crowd subjected to endless shows of scrum-resetting. Yet the sight of their marauding pack in action was a sight to behold. Quartered shirts bounced off Stormers’ hooker Joseph Dweba, while everything that Dayamani, the hosts’ abrasive number-eight, touched, turned to gold. Before long, Kitshoff had plundered a second for the hosts off a lineout maul.

Victory against the defending URC champions - who will face either Exeter or Montpellier in their quarter-final - was always going to be a tall order for a team who had conceded 100 tries in 25 games heading into this encounter. When Fourie, fresh from winning a momentum-sapping turnover in the middle of the park, found himself in the slipstream of a driving maul to glide over for his second, it looked as if it would be a long afternoon for Harlequins. With Libbok at the helm, it was.

Smith’s opposite number orchestrated much of the hosts’ flair and flamboyance in attack and stretched Harlequins' defence all afternoon with his pin-point cross-field kicking. He shepherded an inviting chip in the build up to the hosts’ fourth try - the pick of their scores - which culminated in a sublime acrobatic finish from Damian Willemse. Willie Engelbrecht would plunder a fifth, before the hosts weathered a storm late on.

Match details

Scores 5-0 Fourie try, 7-0 Libbok con, 7-5 Dombrandt try, 7-7 Smith con, 12-7 Kitshoff try, 17-7 Fourie try, 22-7 Willemse try, 25-7 Libbok con, 30-7 Engelbrecht try, 32-7 Libbok con, 32-12 Dombrandt try, 32-19 Esterhuizen try, 32-21 Smith con, 32-26 Marchant try, 32-28 Smith con.
Stormers D Willemse; S Hartzenberg, R Nel, D du Plessis, S Senatla (C Blommetjies 63); M Libbok, H Jantjies (P de Wet 65); S Kitshoff (B Harris 61), J Dweba (J Kotze 57), F Malherbe (N Fouche 57) E van Rhyn, M Orie, D Fourie (W Engelbrecht 65), B Dixon (G Porter 69), H Dayimani (M Theunissen 61)
Harlequins N David; J Marchant, L Northmore (O Beard 61), A Esterhuizen, C Murley (Allan 78); M Smith, D Care (L Gjaltema 78); J Marler (F Baxter 70), J Walker (S Riley 69), W Louw (W Collier 56), D Lamb, I Herbst (G Hammond 69), J Kenningham (T Lawday 69), W Evans, A Dombrandt.
Ref: Pierre Brousset