Harlequins cemented their place at the top of the Aviva Premiership Rugby table when they beat Exeter 19-13 at The Stoop on Saturday.
Quins' victory enabled them to extend their run to nine straight wins in all competitions but they were pushed to the end by a battling Exeter side. Nick Evans scored 14 points for the home team in what was their toughest test of the season to date.
Evans opened the scoring with a third-minute penalty after Exeter, who had retained possession from the kick-off, were caught not releasing just inside their half. Less than two minutes after they had opened the scoring, referee Sean Davey awarded the home side another penalty, this time for hands in a ruck.
This time, Evans chose to kick deep into touch but despite a series of Quins attacking scrums, Exeter stood firm. They should have scored a try on eight minutes when Matt Jess attacked up the left. He only had to pass outside to Luke Arscott, who had an unopposed path to the line, but Jess tried to step inside and Chris Robshaw's flying tackle ended the danger.
Exeter's rucking turned Quins over for a second time, sparking a succession of phases that brought the best from the home defence. Then Mike Brown grounded a Ignacio Mieres kick-ahead just over his goal-line, condemning the crowd to another scrum comprising repeated re-sets.
Finally, John Andress was penalised for not binding, letting the hosts off the hook again in an opening quarter that was Exeter's in terms of possession and territory if not points. However, even when presented with a penalty on 22 minutes, Exeter fly-half Mieres fired wide of the far post.
Harlequins' run of success looked to have filled them with belief, although any complacency would have been dispelled by Exeter's attacking aspirations and some direct talking from the sidelines. And when Evans rifled home a second goal on 27 minutes, the scoreline was harsh on the visitors.
But Quins then made life even more difficult for themselves. Having been awarded a penalty, Davey reversed it after consulting assistant Paul Dix who revealed an off-ball incident that led to a yellow card for lock George Robson, hardly an ideal way to celebrate his 100th appearance for Harlequins.
Exeter, however, failed to punish their hosts while they had the man advantage, and they then gifted Evens another score with a soft penalty at the breakdown. Yet the visitors were powerful in the scrum, and gave Harlequins problems in almost every engagement.
So it was early in the second half when Davey penalised Quins for charging at the first scrum, awarding a free kick, then for standing up in the next, awarding a penalty. This time Mieres made no mistake, putting his team on the scoreboard. And when the home scrum buckled again three minutes later, Mieres kicked another.
Quins were in serious trouble on 54 minutes when Jess was held up just short of the line, but Exeter recycled well and a lobbed pass wide right set up Bryan Rennie to score in acres of space. Mieres converted. This galvanised Harlequins who changed gear and with the home crowd behind them once more, they regained the lead inside seven minutes.
First Evans kicked his fourth goal after Exeter were caught offside, then a surging attacking ended with Karl Dickson's off-load sending full-back Mike Brown crashing through the defence for a fine try, converted by Evans.
The scrums continued to cause serious problems for the home side who became trapped close to their line. But Quins held out – and the roar when the referee finally awarded them a scrum was arguably the loudest of the afternoon.