For nearly an hour, the youngsters and part-timers of Cardiff went toe to toe with the champions of England. They had impressed in an unflattering, practically insulting, defeat to the champions of France and Europe last Saturday, but this time they backed up the promise with enough tries to remain level until close to the hour mark.
This was not a flattering score-line either, although there was little arguing with the four tries by which a virtually full-strength Harlequins pulled away in the final quarter, two of them for Alex Dombrandt.
Still, given the 42 players Cardiff had missing after the dramas of their escape from South Africa and subsequent quarantine, this was some effort by the groundsman, the primary-school teacher and all the other euphemisms for the part-timer, which in this case applied literally.
“Massive respect to Cardiff,” said Danny Care. “After everything they’ve had thrown at them the past few weeks, I thought they were brilliant last week against Toulouse.
“They pitched up here, played some great rugby and made us work really hard for it.”
The future looks bright, too, if the performance of some of these kids is anything to go by, particularly those of the fliers out wide, Cameron Winnett and Theo Cabango, whose older brother, Ben, is a Wales football international. Cabango’s solo try, which drew Cardiff level on the approach to half-time, was a thing of wonder.
The 17-17 score at half-time, which held until Dombrandt’s first try in the 58th minute, was no less than the Blues deserved. One of Cardiff’s favourite sons, Dan Fish, has been recalled from retirement to marshal them from fly-half and did so with much wit. His pass set the 18-year-old Winnett through a gap for the game’s first try in the fifth minute.
Quins responded with a pair of smart inside balls from Marcus Smith, then Jack Kenningham to release Danny Care.
Cardiff’s task was made harder yet by the yellow card shown to Jack Adams, a bona fide Lion among kids, for his tackle earlier in the move.
Even down to 14, though, Cardiff remained a threat. They retook the lead from a quickly taken free-kick by Tomos Williams, which paved the way for James Botham to barge over.
The game was breathless already, as were plenty of those part-timers. Smith took advantage just before Adams’s return from the sin-bin with a brilliant try, breaking from his own 22 and exchanging passes with Dombrandt to race to the posts.
His conversion earned Quins the lead for the first time, but it was a measure of Cardiff’s performance when Smith, the arch sender of penalties to the corner, kicked for the posts just before the half-hour to take the home side five points clear.
That margin was gone a few minutes later in a puff of magic by Cabango. He took Seb Davies’s off-load a few metres shy of halfway and left the Quins cover trailing. On the approach to the try-line he stepped inside Huw Jones and through the tackle of Jack Walker to reach for the line. It was a try worthy of any occasion, as his mate on the other wing could have told him.
After the break, Cardiff remained competitive, keeping Quins scoreless until Dombrandt broke the deadlock. Quins performed that kick-to-the-corner routine and Dombrandt burst over after a punishing carry from a youngster of their own, the replacement hooker, Jack Musk.
The fun was over as Quins settled into their status as uber-favourites. A brilliant cross-kick by Smith was claimed by Joe Marchant, a couple of phases after Smith’s excellent pass had released him down the left. Dombrandt muscled over again from another attacking lineout, before André Esterhuizen did much the same, after Tyrone Green was scythed down inches short by a superb tackle from the kid who had replaced the kid at full-back, Ryan Wilkins.
They deserved better, those kids. They will be better too. Quins, meanwhile, look set for the last 16.