Rugby Union: Grayson adds the finishing touches to Quins' failure

Harlequins 5 Northampton 30
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Rarely can a season have fallen apart so spectacularly or so swiftly as Harlequins' over the last month.

On 13 December they hammered Wasps 53-17 and all seemed set fair for the London club. Since then, though, they have bid farewell to Will Carling and there have been five defeats in six matches: indeed, the only victory in that spell, an injury-time squeak against London Irish, should also have been lost.

They are out of the Cup, all but out of the Allied Dunbar Premiership and, on the evidence of yesterday's effort, completely out of sorts.

This comprehensive league defeat by Northampton surely represents the nadir for Quins and underlines how much work their director of rugby, Andy Keast, faces to keep them in contention for a top-four place. Northampton, by contrast, have stepped up several gears since losing to Quins at Franklins Gardens on the opening day of the campaign and look a much better bet to qualify for next season's European Cup.

The return of the Lions scrum-half Matt Dawson alongside his England colleague Paul Grayson gave the visitors the edge, while Quins clearly missed their French stand-off, Thierry Lacroix, who had food poisoning.

Northampton's confidence was in evidence even before the kick off when they opted to play into a biting wind. After early Quins' pressure they took the lead in the 12th minute with a beautifully worked try from Gregor Townsend after Ian Hunter had sucked in the cover to create the gap.

Despite the overnight deluge, the pitch was surprisingly firm and the Northampton players coped well with the slippery ball while Quins squandered possession. After their initial strike, Northampton kept up the pressure and Grayson added two close-range penalties before half-time as the referee, Ed Morrison, increasingly found fault with Quins. Their lock, Bill Davison, was yellow carded for punching.

After the interval, Quins returned with renewed vigour and threatened to make a match of it when their centre, Tulsen Tollett went over on the right in the 50th minute with a three-man overlap outside him. However, Quins' fate was sealed five minutes later with the try of the game. Northampton were under the cosh near their own line when the flanker, Budge Pountney, broke out and rode a couple of tackles before feeding the ball back to Grayson. The outside-half hoofed an inch-perfect punt into the right corner for his erstwhile England team-mate Jon Sleightholme to sprint on to. Having outpaced the cover, the former Bath wing had time to kick the ball forward, pick it up and dive over the line.

From that point there was only one team in it as Northampton tightened the vice. With Quins throwing the ball around with increasing desperation yet struggling even to escape from inside their own 22-metre line, the Northampton centre, Matt Allen, helped himself to two late tries, both converted by Grayson.

Ian McGeechan, Northampton's director of rugby, and the Quins captain, Keith Wood, felt that the first half had been crucial. "We didn't play for 40 minutes and Northampton were superb, playing with pace and not conceding possession lightly," Wood said. "After that we were playing catch up."

McGeechan, delighted with his afternoon's work, said: "That's as well as I've seen us play. You always worry when you decide to play against the wind but we were very focused."

While Northampton can clearly see where they are going, the future for Quins on this display is just a blur.

Harlequins: Try T Tollett. Northampton: Tries G Townsend, J Sleightholme, M Allen 2; Penalties P Grayson 2; Conversions Grayson 2.

Harlequins: S Stewart; R Liley, T Tollett, J Ngauamo (J Keyter, h-t), D Luger; P Challinor, N Walshe (H Harries, 52); J Leonard, K Wood (capt), A Yates, G Llewellyn, B Davison, R Jenkins, L Cabannes, A Leach.

Northampton: I Hunter (A Northey, 18; Sleightholme 22); J Sleightholme (J Bell, 12; Northey 48), G Townsend, M Allen, H Thorneycroft; P Grayson, M Dawson; G Pagel, A Clarke, M Stewart, J Phillips, J Chandler, G Seely, B Pountney, T Rodber (capt; J Wright, 75).

Referee: E Morrison (Bristol).