Exeter’s Henry Slade gave England boss Stuart Lancaster a timely Six Nations reminder as he produced an all-star show for the Chiefs to heap further pressure on Conor O’Shea’s struggling Harlequins.
The London club now have a mountain to climb to reach the end of season Aviva Premiership play-offs as they extended their poor league run to just one win in their last six games.
Exeter had not won away from home in the Premiership since a trip to table-topping Northampton Saints on November 14 but Slade changed all of that with a composed performance behind the Exeter scrum at the Twickenham Stoop.
Slade hit six penalties, two conversions and even grabbed a try, to add to Ben White’s score as Exeter marched into the top four of the Aviva Premiership table.
Quins could have won the game, but were wasteful, despite scores from Nick Evans and Matt Hopper. Evans hit three penalties and a conversion of his own but defeat for the Londoners means they are now ten points off a playoff place.
Quins began in a sprightly mood, with England scrum half Danny Care – eager to catch the eye of England boss Lancaster – forcing a quick tempo start and this paid off as the home side notched the first points of the afternoon.
New Zealander Nick Evans landed a simple penalty after Exeter’s Ian Whitten was sent to the sin-bin for a deliberate knock-on when Quins looked likely to score.
And the Kiwi fly-half thought he had the opening try soon after as he charged down a delayed Henry Slade clearance and burst through.
The ball did not bounce up for him however and England hopeful Slade, chasing back, just managed to touch down before Evans.
The Chiefs, who ended their four-game losing run in the Aviva Premiership Rugby at home to Newcastle Falcons last time out with a comprehensive 46-17 victory, were then reduced to 13 men as Phil Dollman was yellow-carded for not using his arms in a try-saving tackle on England discard Marland Yarde.
And Quins soon made the Chiefs pay as veteran Evans dived over on the right a minute later, taking full advantage of the two-man deficit – this took him past 1300 Aviva Premiership points; despite not adding the conversion.
Slade responded though, landing a 25-metre penalty two minutes after Quins’ try.
The Chiefs were then level just after the 20-minute mark – an attempted Care box-kick inside his own 22 was expertly charged down by White, who managed to regather the ball and touchdown.
And with Slade adding the conversion, Exeter had an unlikely lead and the Chiefs were soon-back to a full complement of 15 men.
Slade hit the post with a lengthy penalty attempt but then made amends by nailing his next strike, taking Exeter into a five-point lead after 29 minutes.
This gap was cut by Evans who hit a penalty of his own from 25-metres following a Chiefs high-tackle on 33 minutes.
Exeter, who have won only one of their four previous visits to the Twickenham Stoop, may have taken a bigger lead into the break but their late first-half score was ruled out as Will Chudley’s final pass to Dollman went forward.
They did, however, go into half-time with a five-point gap as Slade hit the last penalty of the opening 40.
Exeter had a second try disallowed after the break as Thomas Waldrom found a gap and dived over but replays showed a wide pass to Jack Nowell in the build-up was forward and Quins survived.
The Londoners were sloppy in attack, inexplicably committing basic handling errors under little pressure, Yarde once dropping the ball several paces after gathering it.
And this profligacy told as Chiefs took hold of possession, Slade eyed the gap and slinked through, crossing the whitewash between the posts and adding the conversion.
O’Shea’s men needed a response if they were to keep their faltering season alive and Evans reduced the deficit back down to nine with a well-struck penalty.
But, as if a theme for the match, the home side shot themselves in the foot straight after – Quins were penalised for crossing from the kick-off and Slade hit his fourth penalty of the match.
And Slade hit another soon after as Quins’ hopes looked dead and buried.
Exeter defended admirably, not letting their hosts back in the match, but in truth Quins were guilty of a lack of precision, turning the ball over many times whilst on the attack.
Quins did manage to find a way through the white wall to set up a grandstand finish however, Kyle Sinckler moving to the blind side to provide Hopper with an acrobatic score right in the corner.
Evans added the conversion from wide and the deficit was down to eight with 10 minutes left.
But again Quins were their own worst enemy as they gave away another penalty, Slade doing the honours once more.
Quins searched in earnest for a score to seal a losing bonus point late on and Waldrom saw yellow but O’Shea’s charges were left frustrated as the Chiefs turned over and booted it out. In a must-win game for Quins this was a bitter blow to their playoff chances.