Boss Paul Gustard bridled at the suggestion he was not prioritising the Champions Cup after fielding an under-strength side which was easily brushed aside by Ulster.
Harlequins shipped four tries during an abject second half – five in all – with only a first try from back row Stephan Lewies sparing them from total embarrassment in Friday night’s 34-10 Friday defeat at the Stoop.
The loss leaves Quins all-but out of contention for a place in the knock-out stages of Europe’s premier competition, despite having two pool games remaining in the new year against Bath and Clermont Auvergne.
Head of rugby Gustard did start with Kyle Sincker but England internationals Danny Care, Joe Marler and Chris Robshaw were all missing. Even Siinckler was withdrawn after 56 minutes, soon after the Irish side had taken a 17-3 lead – as if the match had already been written off.
“We had Martin Landajo of Argentina. So are we insulting him by saying Danny Care’s a better player? It’s irrelevant,” Gustard said about his chosen scrum half for the night when quizzed about leaving out some of his big hitters.
It was his way of shutting down the implied criticism that fans may have felt short-changed that they did not witness the sort of contest the teams served up a week ago in Belfast when a late penalty gave ulster a 25-24 win at The Kingspan Stadium.
“The first half was good. We defended resiliently, if not magnificently. They kept battering away at us and couldn’t score,” Gustard said.
“But second half wasn’t good enough at all, we got bullied at the maul and spilled a fair few high balls and it was a really disappointing second half.
“But I don’t think the boys that you mentioned would have made any difference.
“We need a positive reaction. We need to look at what we need to fix. It’s not good enough for a Harlequins team or for a team at home either.”
Ulster’s own scrum half, John Cooney, led Quins a merry dance, scoring 19 points for the visitors. He bagged two superb tries, the first on the stroke of half time, the second after a brilliant piece of individual skill where he ran on to his own grubber kick and picked up to drive over the line.
He also landed three conversions and a penalty, while Luke Marshall, Matt Faddes and Tom O’Toole cashed in with further tries against the sorry home side.
There was never any real hint of the hosts getting grip of the contest, although a surging run by Semi Kunatani at the start of the second half almost allowed full-back Ross Chisholm to race over the line, but he was hauled down 20m out.
Lewies did add to James Lang’s first half penalty to help take Quins up to double figures – lang converting – following a charge from Paul Lasike, but it was only a token gesture.
Harlequins have two more fixtures to see out the year. On Saturday they play Wasps at the Ricoh Arena before the Big Game clash with Leicester Tigers and Twickenham Stadium on December 28.