Northampton triumphed with little possession to win the Big Game at Twickenham, defeating Harlequins 30-25 in front of 82,000.
A Christmas cracker this initially wasn’t as the bumper crowd were treated to rare fizzles of excitement rather than a classic, with a greater focus on the physical and technical aspects of the game.
George North’s try however blew the top off what proved to be an excellent second half, as Harlequins chased down the lead with their backs running into space but Northampton’s experience shining through.
Northampton had lost their spot at the top of the table minutes before kickoff when Bath defeated Exeter, handing the Saints an extra dose of extra impetus.
Harlequins’ ‘Big Games’ at last seem to be gathering a respected status as the premier Christmas fixture in the country too, as the public flocked to west London.
For once this was a clash to match the occasion, with the Premiership champions back at Twickenham for the first time since their extra-time joy earlier this year.
Remarkably, Quins hadn’t scored a try in the Premiership going back to November at Kingsholm.
George Lowe put paid to that unwanted start by finishing off a well-worked score in the corner, Marland Yarde’s wide pass over the top creating the space out wide to ensure Quins wouldn’t make it four straight Premiership games without a try. The vocal crowd approved.
Harlequins were without three key figures in Nick Evans and England duo Chris Robshaw and Joe Marler, but their start was a fast one.
Tim Swiel added a penalty for an 8-0 sprint out the blocks after ten minutes as possession eluded Northampton completely.
Stephen Myler celebrated his new contract by slotting a penalty to put Saints on the scoreboard and momentum swung their way, starting with Mike Brown’s midfield break coming to nothing.
Successive penalties put Northampton down in the corner and from there their maul was too well-worked and too powerful, Samu Manoa peeling off to dot down. Myler’s conversion put them ahead.
A real scrap after the opening quarter’s excitement, scrums sucked up the clock and Northampton rarely enjoyed any possession with the scale at one point tipped 25-75 out of their favour – Joe Trayfoot and Calum Clark trading turnovers at the breakdown in a technical showpiece.
Some more spice was needed and it came with Salesi Ma’afu’s high tackle on Lowe, the tighthead on his way to the bin after his arm wrapped around the centre’s neck. With a lineout in the 22 and a man advantage however, Dave Ward missed his jumper and the chance was gone.
With no possession and 14 men, something that recently hasn’t seemed to bother Northampton, Myler added another three points for Saints to lead 13-8 at half-time.
For Saints to have any lead given they finished the first half with 26 percent possession was impressive, but the champions were yet to fully bring their backs into play.
Swiel couldn’t chip away at the lead with a penalty miss straight at the start of the second half and Northampton duly made him pay.
Manoa’s pure brilliance created the visitors’ second try – pickpocketing Matt Hopper following a chargedown and then giving George North all the time in the world to run onto his offload to score.
Had Swiel not had the speed to catch Ken Pisi, a former Sevens star, then Harlequins really would have been toast. The fly-half just had enough pace to bring down his man after Danny Care’s wayward pass was intercepted.
A penalty from Swiel was snuffed out immediately by Myler as Northampton’s power told in the scrum – the absence of suspended skipper Dylan Hartley not proving to be a problem.
Alex Corbisiero’s return however was a welcome sight for club and country, with the British and Irish Lion making his first appearance since September.
Quins were growing desperate but the excellent Trayfoot gave them hope with his burst over halfway, Ugo Monye in support as Harlequins charged forward.
Swiel’s outstretched arm couldn’t quite find the try line but ten or so phases later there was too much space out wide for Clifford to fail as he went over to put them within five points ahead of a thrilling final quarter.
Sustained pressure from Saints should have ended with more points but a five-metre lineout by the Quins line went awry.
Top handling from Northampton though put Harlequins’ defence through the grinder as they clung on. Corbisiero crucially lost control in his dive for the line to deny him a special score.
Penalties duly mounted against Harlequins deep in their own territory to raise the threat of a yellow card, as Northampton’s maul persistently rumbled towards their line.
Kahn Fotuali’s try was inevitable; the replacement touching down by the posts as Northampton regained top spot in the league over the New Year, although it only came after a pulsating final few minutes which saw Sam Twomey grab a consolation score before Saints kept their composure.
Tries: Lowe, Clifford, Twomey
Cons: Swiel 2
Pens: Swiel 2
Tries: Manoa, North, Fotuali’i
Cons: Myler 3
Pens: Myler 3
Yellow Card: Ma’afu
Harlequins: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Marland Yarde, 13 Matt Hopper, 12 George Lowe, 11 Ugo Monye, 10 Tim Swiel, 9 Danny Care, 8 Nick Easter (c), 7 Jack Clifford, 6 Joe Trayfoot, 5 George Robson, 4 Charlie Matthews, 3 Will Collier, 2 Dave Ward, 1 Mark Lambert.
Replacements: 16 Joe Gray, 17 Darryl Marfo, 18 Kyle Sinckler, 19 Sam Twomey, 20 James Chisholm, 21 Karl Dickson, 22 Tom Casson, 23 Ross Chisholm.
Northampton: 15 Ben Foden, 14 Ken Pisi, 13 George Pisi 12 Luther Burrell, 11 George North, 10 Stephen Myler, 9 Lee Dickson, 8 Samu Manoa, 7 Tom Wood (c), 6 Calum Clark, 5 Christian Day, 4 Sam Dickinson, 3 Salesi Ma’afu, 2 Mike Haywood, 1 Alex Waller.
Replacements: 16 Ross McMillan, 17 Alex Corbisiero, 18 Gareth Denman, 19 Ben Nutley, 20 Phil Dowson, 21 Kahn Fotuali’i, 22 James Wilson, 23 Tom Stephenson.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (146th Premiership game)
Assistant Referees: Paul Dix and Kelvin Stewart
TMO: Sean Davey