Pantomine season started early in Coventry on Sunday, with Joe Marler assuming the familiar role of the villain, but a victorious one, as Harlequins condemned Wasps to a first home league defeat since December 2015.
Dai Young’s side had won 20 successive Aviva Premiership matches at the Ricoh Arena before this upset, which was founded on Quins’ abrasive edge up front – and the new sensation in their back line. While Marler took the boos of the home fans as the bad-guy in this panto drama, the visitors’ new sensation, Marcus Smith, played the feted young prince.
The teenage No 10, who has already trained with England, kicked 14 points and pulled the strings with composure beyond his years, in front of Eddie Jones. Smith conjured a try for Marland Yarde while James Haskell was seething in the sin-bin, having come off worse after a first-half clash with Test team-mate Marler.
James Haskell (top) was involved in a skirmish with England team-mate Joe Marler on Sunday
Wasps back row Haskell and Harlequins prop Marler didn’t see eye-to-eye in the first half
Haskell was left incensed when Marler pulled at him scrum cap causing this spat on the floor
After being split apart things intensified when Marler squirted a water bottle in Haskell’s face
That saw Haskell see red once again as he put his hands around the prop’s throat
Haskell’s actions saw him sent to the sin bin, while Marler avoided any punishment
Quins’ Lions loosehead is known for being provocative on occasions and he was at it again in the 20th minute, pulling at Haskell’s scrum-cap before the flanker hurled him to the floor. The pair continued to wrestle before eventually being separated.
When Haskell tried to walk off, Marler – who had already thrown his head-gear away – squirted his rival in the face with water from a bottle he was holding and Haskell erupted; angrily grabbing him around the neck and throat with both hands. After reviewing the footage, referee Andrew Jackson showed a yellow card to Haskell, who furiously protested before storming off.
For then on, Marler was the subject of constant derision from the stands – not that it unsettled him in the slightest. Young later expressed concern about the handling of the flashpoint, saying: ‘What you want from referees is consistency, and I’ve got to be honest I thought he was consistent – he gave us nothing all game and that’s all you can ask for really!
‘If someone rips your hat off and squirts water in your face, what do you expect? I thought it was very harsh on Hask.
‘There comes a time when you have to look at the guys who spark these things, not the guys who react to provocation. Hask doesn’t react to much, but he was angry. He didn’t punch him or anything like that. He was more restrained than I would have been.’
On the other side of the fence, John Kingston spoke of attempts to wind up his players in this tetchy encounter, after Quins had claimed a rare away win. Asked about the confrontation involving Marler, he said: ‘I’m going to do an Arsene Wenger, I’m afraid. All I saw was a skirmish on the floor.’
Marcus Smith of Harlequins celebrates with his man of the match medal after the match
Two late penalties from the teenage fly-half edged the visitors to a 24-21 victory
In the second half, Kyle Sinckler was sin-binned for collapsing a maul, but Kingston defended how his two Lions props operate on a disciplinary knife-edge, adding: ‘That is so much part of their game. They are wonderful players because they get stuck in to people and never take a backward step.’
While there was antagonism in this match, there was plenty of artistry too. The hosts surged in front with a slick try in the 14th minute, as Marcus Watson burst into space on the right before Willie Le Roux’s inside pass sent Christian Wade over the line.
Soon after, with Haskell sat in the home dug-out feeling hard done-by, Smith’s high kick to the left flank was patted down by Mike Brown into the path of Yarde, who blasted through a tackle to score. Quins’ other wing struck early in the second half as Chris Robshaw and Joe Marchant combined to set up a try for Charlie Walker.
Wasps’ pack drove over from a lineout for Tom Cruse to score while Sinckler was in the bin and a Danny Cipriani penalty put his side 21-18 up, before his deliberate knock-on allowed Smith to level the scores. Eight minutes from time, another Smith penalty edged the visitors ahead.
Unfazed by the high-pressure situation, he was running the show at the end; guiding the visitors deep into enemy territory and bossing around senior team-mates. So the panto finished with the young prince adorned in a medal as Man of the Match – and Marler vilified but victorious.