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What a glorious scene this was. The Stoop was bathed in the most sumptuous September sunshine, smiling supporters were back in the stands after a near six-month absence and a loosehead prop scored a 30-metre intercept try. Truly it was bliss.
It is just a shame that Harlequins forgot to turn up to their own party, comprehensively outplayed by Bath in what may be a fatal blow to their play-off hopes. The bigger picture was the presence of 2,700 fans in the stands in English rugby’s first test event for the return of crowds to stadiums, which are critical to both Premiership Rugby and the Rugby Football Union’s financial health.
Various safeguards had been established. Supporters were given proscribed entry times and gates, pies and pints were delivered to seats and the exit times were staggered by stand, although many fans were seen leaving early which was a telling statement on Harlequins’ performance.
“I'm sad for the board, I'm sad for the club and I'm sad for the fans, but also I'm massively sad for the team because they weren't able to put the performance in,” Paul Gustard, Harlequins head of rugby, said. “I'm disappointed with the performance. It's sad that we had 3,500 people in here but didn't get the result we want.
“From the point of view of normality, it was great to see a crowd back. For the first 20 minutes we gave them something to cheer about, for the next 50 we didn’t. Making the top four seems very tough now. The top four are pulling away now and leaving people like ourselves behind.”
The presence of supporters seems to give tackles that extra bite, passes that extra zip. How reassuring it was to hearing the referee being harangued for making perfectly legitimate decisions or that communal groan as Harlequin offload after offload hit the deck in the second half. The spectacle as a whole is enlivened, like going from watching television in black and white to 4K high definition. Harlequins, however, were off colour. After a bright start, they were smothered by Bath’s relentless defence and dominant scrum, which might just rank as the Premiership’s most potent weapon right now.
Not that Bath just rely on grunt work. Their backline combines invention and precision, marshalled brilliantly by half backs Ben Spencer and Rhys Priestland, who contributed 21 points. England wing McConnochie showed his poaching instincts with two clinical tries to make it five consecutive matches in which he has scored. Taulupe Faletau was his usual classy self at No 8, Josh Bayliss was a tour de force at blindside and Elliott Stooke, another try-scorer, thumped everything that moved, which may have piqued the interest of the watching Eddie Jones.
Yet all those individual performances were left in the shade by Lewis Boyce, who perfectly read Tom Lawday’s pass. To his eternal credit, he did not once look over his shoulder for nimbler, fitter colleagues. Instead he backed himself to chug his way over the line, his arms pumping furiously all the way. He spent the rest of the game getting his breath back.
For the first 20 minutes at least, Harlequins looked intent on capitalising upon their home backing. Centre Joe Marchant did well to gather Danny Care’s cute chip and even as the fly halves exchanged penalties, Harlequins seemed extremely well set during the first quarter. Then came a water break in which Gustard believes his team lost their focus. They had already let a kick-off slip through their hands – or rather bounce off Matt Symons’ head – and into the hands of McConnochie who finished brilliantly with one hand. Five minutes later, the booming figure of Stooke plunged over from short range.
McConnochie effectively put the game to bed after half-time. He gathered Cameron Redpath’s excellent offload, danced down the touchline before cutting inside Brett Heron to score. “He’s on fire right now,” Stuart Hooper, the Bath director of rugby, said. “It is just reward for all the unseen work he does.”
Priestland further twisted the knife with fourth and fifth penalties before Boyce scored his party piece and secured the bonus point, which could be crucial for their play-off aspirations. By the time that Harlequins roused themselves for the final ten minutes – abetted by both Bath hookers Jack Walker and Tom Dunn receiving yellow cards – it was too little too late, although James Lang did finish a flowing team move after Martin Landajo scored from a classic scrum half dart.
“I thought it was a decent performance away from home,” Hooper said. “From an energy and workrate point of view I thought the guys were outstanding today.”