The joys of my new work pattern, not working on a Friday, means Friday night rugby is far more do’able. Harlequins is a fixture I was always likely to make as I tend to spend a fair amount of time at the Stoop during the season, but a nice leisurely drive makes the whole thing so much better! Dinner in the Marriot hotel before the battle commenced was a very pleasant interlude especially as I was joined by my lovely Quins friends Sue and Henry. We had a chat about the previous weekend and all felt that neither team had shone in spite of both coming away with the points. I’d been asked by the sports magazine to make a prediction and went with ‘a narrow victory for Saracens’ what did I know?!? Harlequins emerged to a great fanfare, it has to be said their fans know how to create an atmosphere. Nick Evans kicked off and the ball was received by ex Quin David Strettle; Richard Wigglesworth box kicked the ball to touch for the 1st lineout. George Robson took the ball cleanly and the Quins pack rolled forward well, their efforts came to nothing as the ball was knocked on in midfield. The scrum which was a bit of a messy affair all evening rose up and Saracens were awarded a penalty. The whistle went the way of the home team next as the ball was hit above the head of Wigglesworth from the lineout putting Saracens under pressure; they held the ball and were penalised. Quins made a mess of their own lineout giving momentum back to Saracens; but Jackson Wray knocked on as play progressed. The opening salvo had been a catalogue of errors! Ollie Lindsay-Haugue showed his pace and his ‘skip’ (more of that later) as Quins attacked but Chris Ashton managed to grab hold of his shirt to allow his captain Alistair Hargreaves to tackle him.
There was a moment of controversy as Mike Brown returned a kick from Chris Ashton; looking at the replay I think the Quins fans and Brown had reason to be aggrieved. Ashton was leaping for the ball but it did look as if he jumped into Brown, one we’ll hear about more I feel. Saracens attacked from their lineout with Jamie George combining well with his line, Chris Ashton felt the full force of an immense tackle by Kyle Sinckler. Sinckler failed to roll away however and Charlie Hodgson took his 1st penalty kick of the game to put Saracens in the lead. Quins won the ball from the kick off as Evans kicked short, but the error count continued as Danny Care threw a high pass above Jordan Turner-Hall’s head – knock on. The messy scrum continued and Quins turned over possession; we had several repeats until eventually the ball emerged only to be knocked on again by Turner Hall. Play continued and Charlie Hodgson kicked on, Mike Brown who shines no matter what else is happening around him took the ball well evading the 1st tackle; David Strettle caught him but failed to roll away.
Nick Evans gave Saracens a good attacking position as he kicked the ball straight out; we saw some great running rugby by Saracens with Strettle and Wigglesworth combing down the right wing; a try looked a certainty as Duncan Taylor ran through but Mike Brown put in an immense tackle knocking the ball from his hands. Again however the great work was undone as Quins were penalised in the scrum; Hodgson added another 3 points. The 1st try of the game came from Charge Down Charlie; Nick Evans was slow to get his kick away from a Quins scrum; Hodgson was very aware of that fact and charged the ball down to run in for a try under the posts. I must apologise again for shouting at the top of my voice as he did so. Not quite cricket when I was sitting amongst Quins season ticket holders! Danny Care eschewed the opportunity for Quins to get 3 points on the board as they were awarded a penalty, choosing to take a quick tap; the ball was however knocked on by Marland Yarde. Saracens played on with Alex Goode putting in a big kick up field, Lindsay-Haugue got to the ball first but held on as he was tackled; a card wouldn’t have been unreasonable! The kick was an easy one for Hodgson and he took the lead to 16 points.
The final 9 minutes of the half saw a series of penalties given away by Saracens, and again it has to be said a ‘team’ yellow wouldn’t have been a surprise but Mr Barnes chose to talk to Alistair Hargreaves and warn instead. Nick Evans took a kick at the posts form one of those penalties but missed his mark. Quins chose to kick to touch and had a number of line outs all of which came to nothing. We had a touch of handbags as George Kruis came through the middle of a ruck and was cleared out himself then held by Nick Easter; Billy Vunipola came from nowhere to free his man; another possible yellow moment. An 8 or 9 minute spell where the home team had great field position and ball possession but failed to score saw them go in at half time with a 16 point deficit. Poor Kieran Longbottom was the man whi had the BT Sport mic shoved in his face as he was leaving the field; it never ceases to amaze me that this happens as a man is running off after a hard 40 minutes of rugby!
Nick Evans had taken a knock just before half time and didn’t emerge for the 2nd half; Ben Bottica took his place. Quins started the half with intensity; Joe Marler put in a huge tackle on Jackson Wray to put Saracens under pressure, then an error by Richard Wigglesworth put his team under pressure. That pressure intensified when Charlie Hodgson was given a 10 minute rest in the bin after he reached a hand out to ‘deliberately’ knock on. A harsh card for an instinctive move, but rules are rules. Ben Bottica took the kick, but it hit the posts and Quins remained on nil. George Kruis and Alistair Hargreaves made a schoolboy error as they both jumped for the same ball kicked on by Danny Care; result? A knock on. More hope for the home fans as Saracens were penalised in the scrum, could there be a comeback on the cards? Now I’m going to go back to Mr Lindsay-Haugue and his skip; Quins had a great attacking opportunity spreading the ball across the field, it made its way to the winger, it seems that he can’t simply use his acceleration and run at pace he has to skip every time; that for me slows him down giving the defence a greater chance of getting to him. That proved to be the case and another penalty was awarded to Saracens. The next penalty given away in the lineout was in kicking territory and Alex Goode kicked the 3 points in Hodgson’s absence. Quins took a blow with Charlie Walker who had replaced Matt Hopper went off injured; he was replaced by Jack Clifford; a flanker! Not quite what you’d want with another 30 minutes on the clock. Bottica put a good kick in and Quins won the ball from the lineout driving forward well, great work by Hargreaves saw the put in awarded to Saracens however as the maul failed. Alex Goode took the ball from Wigglesworth and it has to be said put in a horror kick to keep the pressure on his team. Billy Vunipola was penalised for coming in at the side of the maul; Quins kicked to touch again; Luke Wallace went very close before Alistair Hargreaves paid the price for doing as Mr Barnes said in playing on; he was sent to the bin in what may have been a team card but was clearly perturbed! Another short spell of handbags ensued as Danny Care looked to take on Billy Vunipola; something of a mismatch. Quins would surely score and Marland Yarde went close; it did look as if another card might be brandished to Saracens but the yellow remained in Mr Barnes’ pocket. Another kick to touch, another lineout won by Quins, another lost ball, this time by Sinckler. That felt like the spell when Quins should have scored but the dropped ball allowed Saracens to clear their lines and the nil remained. The ball had hardly been in the Quins half for the 1st 20 minutes of the half, but another penalty awarded another 3 points for the visitors after Quins pulled the maul down after a lineout. 2 visits to the Quins half and 2 scores for the visitors.
Another charge down, this time by Brad Barritt nearly saw me yelling again, but he took a moment to gather the ball and try saver Mike Brown appeared form nowhere to make another try saving tackle. Rob Buchanan who had only just come on to the pitch was sent straight back to his seat as he went off his feet; Mike Brown made the point that Barritt held onto the ball, a fair point I’d say. However Hodgson added to his tally and stretched the lead to 25 points. It could have been argued that a scrum in front of the posts in a bid to score the try and work towards a bonus point position may have been a better move. Saracens did score a try soon after; a try that is likely to go down as one of the easiest Chris Ashton will score this season. Quins had been held after making a concerted attack, but the ball was lost in midfield after another huge defensive effort by Saracens. The ball was kicked forward by Duncan Taylor, it should really have been no problem for Marland Yarde covering back; Ashton came from behind Yarde and got to the ball first to score. Yarde won’t want to look back on his virtual stroll to the line, my notes taken at the game actually say ‘Ashton scored a ridiculous try’! Owen Farrell on for Hodgson converted the try. Quins evening was further ruined by a ‘forwards’ try claimed by Will Fraser after they rolled forward after a lineout. That team spirit was never as obvious as at that moment, these men are genuinely happy for each other when things go right. Farrell took the score to Harlequins 0 Saracens 39. The bonus point try wasn’t to be but the bus ride home north of the river will have been a joyous one. For Harlequins to be kept to zero at home will have been a very big blow, they have lots of work to put in before their next game! It’s a shame that so many Quins fans left the ground before the end of the game; Mike Brown at the very least deserved to be clapped off by his home fans.