Rugby Union: Quins off to a flyer

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The Independent Online
Harlequins 41

Saracens 28

WITH THREE minutes gone and Harlequins, third from the bottom of the table, leading the league leaders Saracens by 17 points we half expected a fly- past by the Royal Porcine Airways. We had, after all, been entertained before the match by a furry monstrosity called Harley, so anything was possible. But what we were seeing now really did suspend belief.

Taking advantage of a billowing wind and a lethargic Saracens defence, Quins ripped into their opponents with a controlled fury. Nick Walshe at scrum-half made a darting break and, although he was held up on the line by Kevin Sorrell's tackle, Quins won the ball, swung right and Jamie Williams, steaming in from full-back, stretched over for the try. It is almost superfluous to add that John Schuster, with 31 successful kicks from his last 32 attempts, kicked the conversion. Four minutes gone, seven points ahead.

Saracens, fresh from a conflab behind their goal-line, kicked off. Quins ran back, won a penalty and Thierry Lacroix, with a sublime line kick, advanced his forwards. Quins won the line-out and Rory Jenkins, driven over by his forwards, scored the try which Schuster again converted. Five minutes gone, 14 points ahead.

Good though the party had been it was surely over now. This time Saracens' conference was much more serious. For the third time in five minutes they kicked off and for the third time Quins ran back at them full of zest and purpose. Their support of the ball carrier and accuracy of their passing were breathtaking. It was as if they were playing for their lives and, in the present financial climate, a number of them were certainly playing for their careers. Their speed to the loose ball and sharpness visibly shook Saracens.

The league leaders had not got a clue how to cope. Schuster added to their discomfort with two penalties and, although he slipped up with a third attempt, he was back in the groove with a third penalty which followed Keith Wood's try. The try came from nifty footwork by Lacroix and fine backing-up by Garrick Morgan. Reassuring as it was, a 28-point cushion in the gusty wind was not yet enough. Carelessness allowed Brendon Daniel to streak across for Saracens' opening try but what might have been the critical moment came just before half-time when Quins launched another attack near the Saracens line. With an inviting three-quarter line primed outside him Daren O'Leary, in the acting scrum-half position, opted to have a go himself and the chance was lost.

It seemed to be a costly aberration because Saracens set off at a blistering pace at the start of the second half. Alain Penaud broke through for a try and two minutes later Steve Ravenscroft scored from Tony Diprose's cleverly disguised pass after Daniel had bounced in and out of several attempted tackles. Penaud converted both and suddenly Quins' push had lost its stuffing. Their lead was now a fragile seven points and their defence was looking vulnerable. To make matters worse Rory Jenkins was sitting out his time in the sinbin. Even so, Quins looked livelier in attack, more committed in the loose and unquestionably more comfortable with the ball in their hands. Schuster, with two more well-struck penalties, replaced some of the Quins' stuffing while Paul Wallace replaced Jenkins in the sinbin.

As this also required the removal of Francois Pienaar to make way for a specialist prop, Saracens were forced into another spell on the defensive. Like relay runners waiting for their turn, Wallace and Pienaar were pawing the ground on the touch-line as the seconds ticked by. The 10 minutes up, they raced back on to the field but it was to no avail. O'Leary, fully atoning for his first-half misjudgement, took Williams' pass to score six minutes from time. Schuster, with his third conversion and a total of 21 points for the match, completed a hugely satisfying day for Harlequins and raising serious doubts about Saracens' ability to remain out in front.

Harlequins: J Williams; D O'Leary, D Officer, J Schuster, D Luger; T Lacroix (capt), N Walshe (C Wright 40); D Barnes, K Wood, G Halpin (J Leonard 59), G Llewellyn, G Morgan, B Davison, R Jenkins, A Leach.

Saracens: M Singer; R Wallace, J Thomson, K Sorrell (S Ravenscroft 30), B Daniel; A Penaud, K Bracken; R Grau, G Chuter, P Wallace, P Johns, D Grewcock, T Coker (F Pienaar 51), R Hill, T Diprose (capt).

Referee: C White (RFU).

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