Harlequins pull off another stunning comeback victory over Bristol
Mirroring last season’s gripping semi-final when they overturned a 28-0 deficit to dispatch the Bears 43-36 at Ashton Gate, they won despite leaking three converted tries inside the opening 25 minutes.
Even for a team that has made a speciality of climbing off the canvas to complete the improbable it looked a tall order, as Bristol electrified a noisy crowd at Twickenham Stoop.
But they struck back in the second half, with Smith at the heart of a surge that produced a bonus-point victory to lift them to the top of the table with a perfect record.
Smith replaced the injured Tommy Allan in the 26th minute to make his season debut after completing his mandatory post-Lions rest period, and Quins’ attack took off with their 22-year-old ringmaster directing operations.
Smith also engineered and finished a touchdown for himself as Bristol split at the seams, unable to come to terms with another collapse from a seemingly unassailable position.
It continues a worrying start to the season for the Bears, who have won just one of their four matches and must improve rapidly if they are to challenge for the title.
Quins debuted their new lights system to greet the players on to the pitch, but once the fireworks subsided it was Bristol who struck first when Joe Joyce burrowed over from close range after Joe Marchant had produced a try-saving tackle on the line.
The Bears continued to attack with pace and width and when an out-the-back play created an overlap, Henry Purdy instead used his footwork to dance through the home defence.
And in a repeat of last season’s semi-final, Bristol looked unstoppable as they poured through gaps and won collisions until Quins cracked for a third time with Charles Piutau landing the final blow.
Smith came on for Allan and his first meaningful act was to send Esterhuizen into space, but while the South Africa centre was halted just short, a phase later Lynagh showed good hands to keep hold of the ball and touch down.
Callum Sheedy had nailed all three of Bristol’s conversions and he ended the first half by adding a penalty to extend the lead to 24-7, but seven minutes after the interval Quins pounced.
Smith used his footwork to make a half gap even bigger, releasing Lynagh, who worked the touchline with Esterhuizen before taking the return pass to touch down.
The comeback was on and Quins were now in full stride as a Green run that appeared to be going nowhere was given new legs by a scissors with Lynagh, and the move ended with Dombrandt sending Esterhuizen over.
Bristol were reeling as Smith burst into space and but for more composure at the key moment they would have been over again, but in the 56th minute the lead did change hands.
A scrum did the initial damage, but Danny Care pulled the trigger by directing a twisting Northmore over the line, with Smith converting to nudge Quins 31-24 ahead.
Bristol began to look like a rabble as they leaked a fifth try when replacement prop Collier scooped up turnover ball on the 22 and won the race to the whitewash.
And Quins showed no mercy with additional tries by Green, Smith and Dombrandt to send them galloping over the finishing line.
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