Leicester qualified for the play-offs weeks ago and their selection probably hinted at one eye on Europe where they face Leinster in the Champions Cup quarter-final on 7 May. Stuart Lancaster, the former England head coach, now on the staff at the Irish province was here to cast his eye over Tigers.
The idea they would be a force in Europe was unthinkable two years ago when Leicester would have been relegated but for the Saracens salary-cap scandal. They might be top of the table but they ended up second best here.
Harlequins were knocked out of Europe last weekend but have been gathering momentum in the Premiership as they did last year when they ended up winning it. They came here with five wins on the spin and a game plan, one which Lancaster would have noted, based on Esterhuizen.
Twice the former Springbok carried into the heart of the Leicester defense early on and after a big carry from lock Hugh Tizard, another from Alex Dombrandt and a brilliant pick-up from Will Collier saw the Quins prop over the line.
Anything Harlequins could do in the big carrying stakes Tigers could do and their hulking Fijian wing Nemani Nadolo went straight through Louis Lynagh’s tackle after Ben Youngs’ pass to level it up with eight minutes gone.
But Quins were back ahead when their underrated wing Cadan Murley got on the end of a familiar Smith break from side of play to another. Smith missed the conversion, to the same set of posts which he kicked wide of against Montpellier last week, and Leicester leveled it when captain for the day Hanro Liebenberg ran in. Smith’s easy penalty from in front gave the Londoners a three-point lead at the break. That was only the start of the action with Liebenberg’s second half try saving tackle on Lynagh a highlight.
“Ultimately we have to look at that start and how much access we gave them into our 22 to score those points, said Leicester head coach Steve Borthwick. “I think then tactically we adapted and were very good through the next part of the game. It was a real arm wrestle in the second half between two teams that looked pretty even matched.”
Scoring sequence (Harlequins first): 5-0 Collier try, 7-0 Smith with; 7-5 Nadolo try, 7-7 Ford with; 12-7 Murley tries; 12-12 Liebenberg tries; 15-12 Smith pen (half-time) 15-17 Wiese try, 18-17 Smith pen, 18-20 Burns pen, 23-20 Esterhuizen try, 26-20 Smith pen
Harlequins: H.Jones; L.Lynagh, J.Marchant, A.Esterhuizen, C.Murley; M.Smith, D.Care; J.Marler (S.Kerrod 53), J.Walker (J.Gray 53), W.Collier(W.Louw 53), M.Symons, H.Tizard (J.Chisholm 71), S.Lewies (capt, G.Hammond 52), L.Wallace (T.Lawday 54), A.Dombrand Replacements not used: L.Gjaltema, N.David
Leicester: F. Burns; H.Potter, M.Moroni, M.Scott(B.Hegarty 75), N.Nadolo (C.Ashton 59); G. Ford, B. Youngs (B. Youngs 59); F.Van Wyk (E.Genge 44), C.Clare, J.Heyes (D.Cole 44), C.Green, E.Snyman (H.Wells 44), H.Liebenberg (capt), O.Robinson ( T.Cowan-Dickie 75), S.Jansen (J.Wiese 44) Replacements not used: B.Hegarty
Referee: Wayne Barnes (R.F.U.)