EXETER Chiefs returned to the top of the Aviva Premiership table, but they will no doubt play far better this season and lose.
It was an error-strewn performance perhaps half expected from a group of players who had not faced a competitive game for three weeks, but to still produce a bonus-point win against a team who are serious top-four challengers says a lot about the Chiefs.
Quins were missing their England contingent, and suffered the loss of Joe Marchant (hamstring) and Jack Clifford (shoulder) in the lead-up to the game, with Clifford pulling out in the warm-up.
They also lost centre Harry Sloan after 27 minutes, while they had Jono Kitto making his debut at scrum-half, alongside 18-year-old England squad member Marcus Smith at fly-half.
However, Chiefs were missing their own quartet of internationals, and still have a handful of players of their own out through injury.
Smith was a real handful, and showed a skill and composure beyond his years to put the reigning champions to the severest of tests, and he was at the centre of everything good that Quins did.
Exeter made a fine start to the contest. Lovely footwork by Phil Dollman created a try for former Australian international winger Lachie Turner – his third of the season – converted by Gareth Steenson.
But Quins flanker James Chisholm stunned the Sandy Park crowd by breaking two tackles and racing in from 20 metres to provide an instant riposte from the visitors.
Smith converted, but Olly Woodburn slid over for his sixth Premiership try of the season after some slick handling from the Exeter backs, with Steenson adding the extras superbly from the touchline.
Exeter were very loose, making some uncharacteristic mistakes, and Quins made them pay when Smith’s kick downfield caused problems for Steenson, who was shoved off the ball by the youngster, who then fed Scotland international winger Tim Visser for an easy run-in, with Smith levelling the scores with the boot.
More Smith magic saw him open up the Exeter defence with a lovely dummy and create what looked a certain try for skipper James Horwill, but television match official Stuart Terheege decided Woodburn had somehow managed to prevent him grounding the ball by getting his hand underneath it.
However, Quins continued to apply pressure, and when Ollie Devoto kicked the ball out of a ruck beneath his own posts, Smith slotted the penalty with the last kick of the half to give Quins a 17-14 lead, but that was the last time they scored in the game.
Exeter began the second half as they did the first, with an early try, this time by second row Jonny Hill, improved by Steenson, to put them back in front at 21-17.
Quins thought they had regained the lead with a touchdown from young centre James Lang after he had beaten Turner to Smith’s cheeky chip into the in-goal area, but it was ruled out for an earlier foot in touch by Visser, much to the relief of the home crowd.
Instead, 11 minutes from time, Hill managed to get over in the scorebox corner for his second try of the game, though Quins were furious that referee JP Doyle did not check to see if there was an obstruction earlier in the move.
Steenson swiftly added the extras, and kicked a penalty at the death to make it an immaculate five-from-five kicking display for a personal 11-point haul.
The win took the Chiefs two points above Saracens in the table, and they meet the Londoners at Allianz Park on Sunday.
Exeter: P Dollman, L Turner, I Whitten, O Devoto (S Hill 59), O Woodburn, G Steenson, N White (W Chudley 57), B Moon (A Hepburn 57), J Yeandle (capt) (L Cowan-Dickie 57), M Low (G Holmes 49), M Lees, J Hill, D Armand, J Salvi, T Waldrom (S Skinner 71). Replacements not used: T Salmon, J Simmonds.
Harlequins: R Chisholm, A Alofa (G Ibitoye 57), H Sloan (C Walker 27), J Lang, T Visser, M Smith, J Kitto, M Lambert (L Boyce 49), D Ward, W Collier, C Matthews (G Merrick 63), J Horwill (capt), J Chisholm, B Glynn (A White 70), M Luamanu. Replacements not used: C Piper, P Swainston, I Prior.
Referee: JP Doyle (RFU).
Exeter: Tries: Turner, Woodburn, J Hill (2); Cons: Steenson (4); pen: Steenson.
Harlequins: Tries: Chisholm, Visser; Cons: Smith (2); Pen: Smith.