Berdos tests the patience of Saints

Harlequins 27 Northampton 6
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The Independent Online

Harlequins' three England players – Nick Easter, Danny Care and Ugo Monye – were obliged to sit out this fixture, with the Six Nations' Championship imminent, and it was a good one to miss: attritional, scrappy and bone-chilling for those not on the field. Easter looked mildly bronzed from his week training in the Algarve with the national team and he was certainly more content at the outcome than his not-so-little brother, Mark, who was blindside flanker in a Northampton pack missing another resting England man, the hooker Dylan Hartley, and the injured Scotland tighthead Euan Murray. Without those two, the Saints forwards could make no impact on what is now a run of 11 matches without an away win in the Premiership.

The opening three minutes featured uninterrupted waves of attack which led Quins, at length, to a try by the hooker Gary Botha at the left corner, while the French referee, Christophe Berdos, played an advantage. The conversion was tricky in the Arctic breeze but Nick Evans nailed it and the former All Black fly-half added penalty goals after 16 and 39 minutes. Otherwise the first half was all crunch and not much credit for Monsieur Berdos, who whistled for 17 free-kicks and penalties and was in danger of tennis elbow from all his signalling of players holding on to the ball in the tackle.

The bad news for Scotland is that Murray's rib problem may prevent him facing Wales next Sunday. For Harlequins, Botha – who had a mixed afternoon throwing in – and the England wing David Strettle made returns after long-term injury. Northampton had the Ireland flanker Neil Best on the bench after his completion of an 18-week ban for gouging Wasps' James Haskell last September.

Northampton's away travails are becoming a worry to their coach, Jim Mallinder, and they never looked like adding to their eight wins in 11 matches at the Stoop since the Premiership began in 1997 – London Scottish and London Irish, you may recall, have been tenants here.

Berdos had only 40 seconds to wait for his first penalty of the second half; the Saints fly-half, Stephen Myler – who, like Evans, had missed once earlier – went for the 50-metre kick without success. Things soon got livelier, though, albeit with an element of mishap. Botha's throw was not straight, Paul Shields overthrew for Northampton and Quins earned a line-out in the visitors' 22. Botha galloped to the line but though his try was ruled out, apparently because he brushed Berdos on the way through, Harlequins' pack rattled forward at the resultant scrum to earn a penalty try. It was converted by Evans for 20-0. Best had just come on, in time for the retreating scrum: welcome back, Neil.

Myler knocked over two penalties to give Northampton a modicum of hope, then Strettle got up from a tackle looking mournful and flexing his knee. Thankfully, it wasn't his troublesome foot and he played on to the end. So did Quins, with Nick Evans slicing through the middle to set up his namesake, the replacement second-row forward Jim, for the third try.

There were 13 minutes for Quins to go for the bonus or Northampton to make a rare surge into their hosts' 22. Neither happened, which left Harlequins the happier.

Harlequins: M Brown; D Strettle, DW Barry, J Turner-Hall (S Stegmann, 71), T Williams (C Malone, 73); N Evans, A Gomarsall (J Poluleuligaga, 64); C Jones, G Botha, M Ross, O Kohn (J Evans, 57), G Robson, C Robshaw, T Guest, W Skinner (capt).

Northampton: B Reihana (capt); P Diggin, J Clarke, J Downey (C Mayor, 68), S Lamont; S Myler (B Everitt, 71), L Dickson (A Dickens, 71); S Tonga'uiha, P Shields (B Sharman, 70), B Stewart (T Smith, 64), I Fernandez Lobbe (C Lawes, 60), J Kruger, M Easter, M Hopley (N Best, 48), S Gray.

Referee: C Berdos (France).