A last-gasp Marcus Smith penalty fired Harlequins into the last 16 of the Champions Cup, and strengthened his claim to the England No 10 shirt.
The 22-year-old scored 16 points, in a game the English champions were fortunate to win as they were run ragged by a razor-sharp Cardiff back-line throughout, but a scrummaging masterclass from Joe Marler laid the platform for Smith to work his magic.
“It’s a relief,” Smith said. “I don’t think we were at the races against a very strong Cardiff side. It’s testament to the guys and what we’re trying to build. We stuck in there and we’re very resilient at times.
“To be rewarded with a penalty in front of the sticks by the forwards was a massive relief. All season the forwards have been the difference for us. As backs we’re very lucky to be playing behind a pack that when it gets on top, stays on top.
“Their ability to pick lines off me makes it so easy for me and some of the tries were nice individual bits but as a team, we have to keep focusing on gelling as a squad.”
It was a travesty this game was played behind closed doors, with some of the rugby of the highest class and Cardiff’s Owen Lane also outstanding.
After a period of early pressure, a well-executed cross-kick by Smith was gathered by Louis Lynagh. The Australian cut inside Hallam Amos before showing his strength to power his way over the line for their opening try. After a few phases, the ball was spread wide to Lane who brushed off some weak tackling to score at the far right-hand corner.
Jarrod Evans added the extras and Cardiff were soon celebrating their second try. Samoan centre Rey Lee-Lo sliced Quins open with a 70-metre break before offloading to Josh Adams. The Wales international was hauled down by Tyrone Green, but after a period of sustained pressure, James Ratti squeezed over from short range. Cardiff buckled in the scrum which resulted in prop Dmitri Arhip getting sent to the sin-bin, and they made the most of their numerical advantage with another cross-kick from Smith leading to Green touching down. Some sparkling work from Smith with a deceptive inside pass to Alex Dombrandt sent Luke Northmore over for a try.
Smith converted, but Cardiff refused to throw in the towel, and were able to build some pressure in the Harlequins 22 which resulted in Dombrandt getting shown a yellow card for killing the ball at the breakdown. After huffing and puffing on the visiting try line Wales international Dillon Lewis barged over for Cardiff’s third try, with Evans converting to nudge Cardiff ahead.
The game then turned completely on its head with a well-weighted kick from Amos gathered by Lane who acrobatically finished at the far left-hand corner. The referee and the TMO deliberated, but the try was eventually awarded. Harlequins were getting ripped to shreds as a lovely offload from Lee-Lo went through the hands of Seb Davies and Shane Lewis-Hughes, before Lane charged up the touchline. The ball was recycled by Cardiff with an inside pass from Willis Halaholo allowing Corey Domachowski to score. Smith danced his way past three defenders to score a crucial try and level the scores in the process before landing the match-winning penalty.
“You would like to think you could close those games out, but if you watch Harlequins that’s a regular day at the office for them, they are never beaten until the final whistle,” said Cardiff director of rugby Dai Young. “I never felt comfortable. I’m proud of the effort and the way we played.”