Leinster pretty much stole the win the last time they visited this corner of suburban London five years ago, but there was no act of grand larceny this time round as Harlequins deservedly closed out matters to claim the four points.
That 2009 encounter has gone down in folklore, not just as ‘Bloodgate, but as the afternoon that allowed Leinster finally shed their flaky image and one which launched the province on the way to their first European title.
There was little here to suggest that they will be adding to the three stars that now adorn their jerseys and yet the losing bonus point they salvaged may prove to be of critical value when the pool’s final calculations are completed next month.
Leinster suffered in the scrum and in the loose against a ‘Quins side that plays at real pace and, with their half-back pairing of Eoin Reddan and Jimmy Gopperth off form, it made for a long and difficult evening in North London.
It was, coincidentally, a year to the day since Leinster gave what was arguably their most complete performance yet under O’Connor, against Northampton Saints at Franklin’s Gardens, when the visitors amassed six tries and 40 points.
The visitors started promisingly, engineering a decent first attacking wave from the kick-off and one that ran swiftly through the phases before lock George Robson went off his feet at the ruck and allowed Ian Madigan fire over the first penalty.
The rest of the half was less assured with a number of elementary enough errors – handling, passing and kicking — costing Leinster any chance of establishing a momentum. Chief among their worries, however, was a scrum close to collapse.
Three times in a row, referee Jerome Garces pinged them at the setpiece and yet, for all their problems, Leinster hung on in there in a first-half in which Harlequins could never quite turn their slightly better efforts into anything akin to dominance.
Not helping Conor O’Shea’s side was the loss of their experienced and classy out-half, Nick Evans, who walked off injured after just 13 minutes and, with fellow New Zealander Ben Botica already in casualty, that left young Tim Swiel in the hot seat.
The 21-year-old only recently joined Quins on loan from the Sharks in South Africa as cover after a Super Rugby season that passed him by because of fitness issues of his own and he looked some way short of confidence, especially with his kicking.
The difficulties on both sides made for a poor spectacle on what was the perfect afternoon for a game of rugby – a full house of 14,800 in a purpose-built stadium and all to the backdrop of blue skies and winter sunshine.
A third Madigan penalty rounded up the scoring in the opening period and left the sides level at nine apiece, and the Ireland international briefly gave his side the lead with his fourth successful kick from four eight minutes after the restart.
That was as good as it got.
Quins, as they had five years ago, were wont to pass up the odd kickable penalty and keep their foot to the floor. Such is their style and it paid off 13 minutes into the second-half when they spurned a three-pointer for the second time.
In truth, it was one that Swiel may actually have struggled with.
From five metres out they had the perfect platform and, with the lineout gathered, they migrated swiftly, but precisely, across the Leinster 22 before Nick Easter stretched over with Jack McGrath hanging out of his legs.
The gap grew to four after Swiel dissected the sticks with the conversion, but Leinster seemed to be making headway into it when Darragh Fanning – preferred on the wing to Zane Kirchner – collected a Rob Kearney up and under near the Quins 22.
Leinster failed to capitalise on the break quickly enough, however, and Harlequins had thwarted a handful more phases by the time the ball was worked left to right and Rob Kearney’s attempt to find Kirchner was intercepted.
The pilferer’s name, Alesi Tikoirotuma, was almost as long as the distance he had to cover to claim the five points but, touch down he did. Swiel somehow contrived to miss the gimme conversion, but the damage was done.
Madigan closed the gap to three points with two subsequent penalties with ten minutes still to play, but Leinster never looked like scoring a try and that only added to the sense that Danny Care’s 75th minute drop goal was the end note.
And so it was.
Aseli Tikoiotuma’s intercept try midway through the second-half was crucial in establishing a bulwark on the scoreboard for Harlequins, even if the easy conversion attempt was skewed wide.
No-one mentioned it explicitly, but Bloodgate was the backdrop. Chief executive David Ellis remarked in his programme notes how Harlequins “is a much changed club”.
Danny Care’s drop goal five minutes from time, kicked while he was still in motion, was some act of skill. Conor O’Shea said later he had been talking about scoring one all week.
Had to be a home favourite and they don’t like many more than they do Nick Easter in these parts. Surplus to requirements with England, but he remains some presence at club level. Made the hard yards time and again and scored a try to boot.
Another unimpressive showing from Jimmy Gopperth at 10 for Leinster. Matt O’Connor has stood by him but the Kiwi looks low on confidence. Time for Ian Madigan to be given his shot?
Jerome Garces penalised Leinster time and again at scrum time, but Matt O’Connor had no issue with that afterwards.
Harlequins come to the AVIVA next weekend. Expect festive fireworks.
Harlequins scorers: Tries: Easter, Tikoirotuma. Cons: Swiel. Pens: Evans, Swiel 2. Drop Goals: Care.
HARLEQUINS: M Brown; M Yarde, M Hopper, G Lowe, A Tikoirotuma; N Evans, D Care; J Marler, D Ward, W Collier; C Matthews, G Robson; L Wallace, C Robshaw, N Easter.
Replacements: T Swiel for Evans (13); J Clifford for Wallace (63); K Sinckler for Collier, J Gray for Ward (68); T Casson for Hopper (71); D Marfo for Marler (75).
Leinster scorers: Pens: Madigan 6.
Leinster: R Kearney; D Fanning, G D’Arcy, I Madigan, L Fitzgerald; J Gopperth, E Reddan; J McGrath, S Cronin, M Ross; D Toner, M McCarthy; R Ruddock, J Murphy, J Heaslip.
Replacements: Z Kirchner for D’Arcy (56); I Boss for Reddan, K Douglas for McCarthy, J Conan for Murphy (61); T Furlong for Ross (76).
Referee: J Garces (FFR).