England scrum-half Danny Care produced a moment of magic as Harlequins regained top spot in the Aviva Premiership after sneaking a narrow thriller against Leicester Tigers at The Stoop.
Trailing at the break, Care ran half the length of the field from a tap penalty to reignite Quins, with the mercurial Ben Botica adding 20 points from the boot in an impressive kicking performance as Leicester crumbled.
Toby Flood scored 16 points for Leicester on his return to Premiership action, while Adam Thompstone touched down for the Tigers but it wasn’t enough for the visitors.
Leicester were the biggest recipients of England boss Stuart Lancaster wanting his Six Nations fringe players to experience game-time in the Premiership this weekend, with Toby Flood, Manu Tuilagi and Thomas Waldrom all returning for the Tigers, while Quins welcomed back Care from international duty.
And it was Care who shone brightest in the opening exchanges as the England No.9 sniped around the fringes, creating a meaningful break for Harlequins after an offload from giant second row George Robson.
With Saracens claiming a bonus-point win against Exeter Chiefs earlier in the day, the clash between last season’s Aviva Premiership finalists took on extra significance.
It was Leicester who struck first despite persistent Quins pressure in the opening five minutes – former England No.8 Nick Easter, playing in the second row, attempted to keep the ball alive and Flood intercepted in his own half and sprinted through for a score despite being chased all the way by Tom Williams.
Flood, desperate to put in a performance and catch the eye of England boss Lancaster, converted his own score to give Leicester the unlikeliest of early leads.
Botica, deputising for compatriot Nick Evans, dragged Quins back into the game on 13 minutes – Leicester were penalised at scrum-time and the Harlequins’ No.10 made no mistake with his effort at goal.
While Quins continued to needlessly play from deep, it was the continued low error count for Leicester that saw them add to the scoreboard.
Care was penalised at the breakdown, handing his England colleague Flood the opportunity to stretch Leicester’s lead inside 20 minutes despite being outplayed early on.
From the restart England wing Ugo Monye collected a drop-put, forcing Leicester into a mistake and allowing Botica a chance to drag Quins back to within four points with a penalty.
And Quins were back to within a point of Leicester on 25 minutes as the Tigers were penalised for dragging down a maul and Botica slotted over a penalty.
Flood extended Leicester’s lead on 29 minutes with a penalty, while Botica matched the England man’s effort on 34 minutes with a kick at goal of his own to make the score 13-12.
Flood may have been made to play second fiddle to Owen Farrell for England during this year’s Six Nations but his opening 40 minutes for Leicester will have given Lancaster a timely nudge.
On the stroke of half-time it was Flood’s kick-through after multiple Tigers’ phases that unlocked the Quins defence and allowed Leicester wing Thompstone to touch down – the England man failed to add the extras though with almost the last kick of the half.
Harlequins were desperate for a piece of magic after the break to get back into the game and it was England scrum-half Care who served it up on 50 minutes.
Frustrated at playing a watching brief in the Six Nations, Care took a quick tap-penalty on halfway and ran half the length of the field, jinking in and out to fool former England man Mathew Tait and force his way over – Botica adding the extras to put Quins ahead.
Leicester struggled after the break as Quins started to dominate the breakdown, with Care particularly effective sniping around the fringes and kicking behind the Tigers defence into space.
It was further Leicester indiscipline at the breakdown that led to Botica extending the Quins lead to four points with a penalty after a spell of sustained pressure from the defending Premiership champions.
Quins thought they had wrapped up the points with 13 minutes remaining but Monye’s score in the corner was brought back for obstruction in the home side’s midfield.
And just a minute later the error looked costly as Leicester scored their first points of the second-half as Flood kicked a penalty to bring the Tigers back to within a point of the hosts.
The game looked in the balance as the Tigers pressured the Quins line in the dying minutes but the home defence held firm, while a late penalty from Botica ensured it would be Leicester going home empty-handed.