The Big Game has become something of a ritual for me; the perfect opportunity to watch a game of rugby over a spell, that if we’re really honest can be a bit boring. Having been to all 6 and had mixed experiences; including watching a game that was akin to watching paint dry last year I was hoping for a good game as the Champions and current league leaders Northampton Saints came back to the scene of their triumph against Saracens in May. Saints are riding on a high this season; to beat Leicester Tigers, with 14 men for a good 63 minutes, was some feat even against the backdrop of what has been a mixed season so far for the Tigers.
Harlequins tend to lift their game when they come across the road to the big stadium but if I’m honest I was expecting a dominant performance from Saints. They along with Bath are the team to beat as the year is coming to a close. I was lucky enough to be at the game with media access which put me on the gantry at the front of the middle tier in the West Stand, one of the best uninterrupted views in the house.
The teams emerged to what was very nearly a full house; Stephen Myler kicked off to start the game, Mike Brown took the ball and took the first of what was bound to be many big hits. Quins cleared through a Danny Care box kick which was returned by Ben Foden. The timing of Ken Pisi’s tackle on Tim Swiel was out this time and Quins were awarded the 1st penalty of the game.
The ball was knocked on in the lineout giving us an early 1st scrum; amazingly it worked 1st time! And indeed went the way of Quins against the head! Quins moved the ball quickly across the line looking very sharp. The ball was lost then cleared by Saints. Quins broke again this time from the lineout as George Lowe showed a great turn of speed.
Dave Ward found some space as Quins progressed through the phases with Lowe turning up on the right wing to score after collecting a pass from Mike Brown; Marland Yarde had sailed a pass out to Brown from what was in effect Lowe’s spot. Swiel missed the kick, but the ‘home’ team were ahead. Lowe was instrumental in winning a penalty in front of the posts; Swiel made no mistake, slotting the ball over the posts to extend Quins’ lead.
Stephen Myler kicked his own penalty as Saints were awarded a penalty from the kick off as Joe Trayfoot obstructed Samu Manoa. The ball was knocked on by Quins from the kick off; after being reset twice Wayne Barnes awarded a free kick Saints way. The kick was outside the 22 so was received by Quins giving them an attacking opportunity. Mike Brown made a wonderful break running through as if there was no defence in front of him. They were unable to capitalise as Mark Lambert was penalised for holding the ball.
Saints scored their 1st try through Samu Manoa after a very lucky break; Ugo Monye was forced into making a clearing kick close to the Quins line; the initial throw in was I would say blatantly not straight but Quins were penalised for pulling the man down. Saints rolled the maul from the next lineout and Samoa leapt over the line to score. Myler added the extras to put his team ahead in spite of Quins having had more of the ball.
We had a spell where both teams showed their strengths in their forwards pack before we had what could have been a decisive moment in the game; Salesi Ma’afu made a very clumsy tackle on George Lowe as Quins attacked. Handbags were thrown between Danny Care and Lee Dickson; I’m not entirely sure why Dickson thought he needed to protect his prop from Care! The tackle was high, it was a prop running in at a bad angle tackling a centre going forwards, it was a yellow, but certainly not the red that some of the crowd were baying for. I’ve said it before and I’m certain I’ll say it again, I’m not a fan of the crowd yelling for a players’ head, it’s happening far too regularly for me!
It looked as if George Pisi was lucky not to see the same card moments later as it appeared that he’d swung a wild arm at Matt Hopper as Quins attacked; Wayne Barnes went back via the TMO and what had looked bad in the 1st instance was something and nothing. It was Saints who scored with a man down as Quins were penalised for entering at the side; Stephen Myler with a kick in front of the posts scored the 3 points.
The teams went in at half time with the scores on Harlequins 8 Northampton Saints 13 – Quins had looked the better attacking team and had the possession but hadn’t been able to convert that to points.
Quins got the 1st opportunity to add to their score with a penalty against Manoa in the 2nd half; Swiel was unable to convert his kick. Swiel had a nightmare soon after and gave George North what must have been one of the easiest trys he’ll score this season. Manoa charged down Swiel’s kick, gathering the ball he simply passed the ball out to North who ran in to score the 5 points. Myler was in form with the boot and added the extras. I have to say the way his team mates shook North’s hand was very civilised! No slapping on the back or hugging going on there!
Quins had another concerted attacking effort before Danny Care, taking a tap penalty, threw a wild pass, straight into the hands of Ken Pisi. Pisi looked to be away but Tm Swiel grabbed his foot to bring him down, it really was a brave, try saving tackle.
As they had for the whole game really Quins carried on attacking; winning a penalty in the ruck; Swiel with an easier angle added the 3 points. A scrum penalty as Saints pushed forwards gave Myler another penalty in front of the posts to open the lead to 12 again. Alex Corbisiero came on with the clock on 55 minutes, a good sight for every England fan in the stadium.
A great break by Joe Trayfoot, who made the most of his Premiership start along with his colleague Jack Clifford, set up an attack for Quins, Swiel looked to have scored as he himself emerged to run for the line, but he was just short. Jack Clifford added to what had been a good afternoon for him as he scored after Quins had battered the Saints line. There was a hard tackle in the build up to the try, on Clifford, it did need looking at by the TMO but was deemed to have been a penalty rather than a card. And, yes, we had more shouts of ‘off, off’ – not good.
A series of penalties gave Saints a good attacking platform but they failed to take advantage of the territory gained as the ball was knocked on in the lineout. Saints were soon back after Quins failed to make ground with their clearance; Corbisiero went over the line but knocked the ball on. Saints continued battering the Quins line and Kahn Foutali’i scored what felt like an inevitable try. Myler again added the extras to take his team to 30. The try was the last we saw of Fotuali’i as he left the pitch with his arm wrapped in his shirt.
Ben Foden stood in at scrum half; a man of many talents! Quins were to have the final say to take a bonus point back to the Stoop with them; Danny Care flew away as Quins were awarded a free kick from a scrum, the ball went from one side of the pitch to the other until substitute Sam Twomey scored his 1st Premiership try. Tim Swiel scored the extra 2 with a great kick.
With less than 3 minutes remaining Quins didn’t have the time to score the try needed to win the game – the score finished on Harlequins 25 Northampton Saints 30. The sign of a champion team is one that wins in spite of not really having a good day at the office. Quins had 75% possession to Saints 25% – Samu Manoa took the Man of The Match Award; he’s a man who’s going to be missed by Saints as he heads to the South of France next season. A much better game for the neutral and one Quins can take a lot of positives from. Saints go into 2015 as the team to beat; Part 2 of the Premiership is going to be interesting!