The Big Game remains one of the feats and fixtures of the festive season, consistently the best attended occasion on the club calendar, even in these times of economic fret. Harlequins’ annual jaunt across the Chertsey Road is a reliable day of pomp and pumped-up volume: there were nearly 80,000 in for this 15th edition, those heavy of legs, heads and bellies coaxed out of their stupor for a Christmas feast of rugby even on a wild night of weather.
A Twickenham crowd is rarely a great bastion of diversity but there was at least a youthful feel to affairs, plenty of families joining in the festive fun after lining the streets as the hosts made their way across from the Stoop. The game that followed a vibrant lights and music show was the sort of calorific treat best enjoyed at this time of year, both attacks on top against two defences that have a tendency to leak points.
Providing much of the confectionary were Marcus Smith and Danny Care, sugar-sweet in half back partnership and enjoying the spaces on offer. Care is the only man to have featured in all 15 Big Games, the scrum half as reliable a panto performer as you’ll find. “He’s a magnificent player who epitomises everything that Harlequins is about, on and off the pitch,” captain Alex Dombrandt effused of a man who turns 37 on Tuesday. “We are very lucky to have him and fingers crossed he stays for another year.”
Their half backs ran the show but it was the ever-improving Nick David who scored both of Harlequins’ first two tries, first capitalising on a quick tap from Will Evans and then a bit of magic from his fly half, Smith jinking around Chris Harris and connecting with his wing to go over in the left corner.
The tries came either side of an Adam Hastings try that was rather keeping Gloucester afloat, particularly when the hosts went over for a third time. It arrived courtesy of a cute chip from Care and a big-old barge by an onrushing Alex Dombrandt, shoving aside opposite number Zach Mercer to clear the way for a rumble to the line. If there is only room for one of the two loose forwards in the England ranks, it was quite the statement score with Steve Borthwick’s squad naming little more than a fortnight away.
But for an off-day from the tee for Marcus Smith, Harlequins might have eyes on cantering clear, but the bonus point arrived soon after the interval. An apparent forward pass from Andre Esterhuizen was deemed licit by the officials and Dino Lamb took Dombrandt’s pass to the line. Lamb clutched his shoulder immediately after scoring – the Italy international was fortunate to escape serious injury after a sickening incident against Toulouse earlier this month but may not have been so lucky here, with injuries to Joe Marler and Stephan Lewies also of concern.
George McGuigan answered Lamb’s score quickly for Gloucester, but Harlequins kept them at arm’s length. A Dick Whittington dummy and dart from Care en route to a dot down under the sticks pushed the margin back out to three scores; not to be upstaged, Smith added a drop goal ten minutes from time to just about seal it.
Though a Jonny May score and late penalty try mean Gloucester secured two bonus points, defeat was an eighth on the spin for the club, equalling their worst such Premiership run. In a league where every other side is performing to expectations, the pressure builds on George Skivington.
“We haven’t seen the best of Gloucester in 2023, really, that’s the reality of it,” Gloucester’s director of rugby said. “We haven’t shown the best version of ourselves. We let them score too many tries in the end.”
While their men’s side toil, Gloucester-Hartpury’s women continue to fly. This extra helping of seasonal entertainment has been further enriched in recent years by the addition of a women’s game, this year made all the better with both visitors of the same provenance.
The defending Premiership Women’s Rugby champions swapped cherry and white for a vibrant pink to mark the occasion, and showed again that they remain among the class of the league, with an all-international, power-packed group of forwards blowing away Harlequins repeatedly on the gainline.
With England’s Mo Hunt and Welsh fly half Lleucu George picking their runners expertly, a bonus point try arrived inside half-an-hour, disappointing a growing number of quarters-clad Quins fans perhaps wishing they’d been a touch tardier.
But the hosts rallied, scoring in quick succession either side of half-time, Hannah Sims reaching over after driving to within a metre before Emily Scott spotted a midfield mismatch on the outside arc to dance into the corner. Just before the hour mark, they were back within a score, Babalwa Latsha off the bench and on to the scoresheet, powering over from short range.
That was, however, to be the extent of the fightback with Gloucester-Hartpury stern thereafter, and finishing with a flourish as Rachel Lund found just enough room to squeeze over in the corner. Gloucester-Hartpury remain unbeaten this season; Harlequins take heart from an improved performance and another significant visit over the road.
“It’s such a massive occasion,” said beaten captain Rachael Burford, indicating afterwards that this would be her final Big Game. “It was special walking across knowing that I’ll be in the guard of honour next time. Playing at Twickenham is phenomenal – it’s where every player wants the opportunity to play.”
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