It was never like this in 2010. Harlequins had gone through the old year without an away win in the league but they pitched up to the home of the leaders and turned them over with a clever mixture of cute defenceand back-row expertise. For Northampton it was more "mea culpa" than "auld lang syne".
The Saints started the second half with a position that could only have been more potent if Harlequins had boarded their bus and gone home. Northampton led 10-3 and their opponents were down to 13 men for the next nine and a half minutes. Quins' tighthead John Andress and No 8 Nick Easter had been shown yellow cards, 30 seconds apart, just before the interval, as Northampton pressure at a series of scrums earned a penalty try converted by Steve Myler.
Yet what ensued was as nightmarish as it could get for the Saints, who had won all eight matches at the Gardens previously this season. Depleted Quins were smart with the ball – going side-to-side from rucks marshalled by their England scrum-half, Danny Care – and emboldened by horrendous Saints lapses. Ben Foden launched Northampton with a mazy run but when at length the ball reached Courtney Lawes on the opponents' 22, the young England lock was indecisive and he missed an overlap which included Saints' serial try-scoring loosehead, Soane Tonga'uiha.
Still it appeared Saints had only to be patient to prosper. They stole a Quins line-out through Christian Day and with charges by Dylan Hartley and Lawes they won a penalty in the visitors' 22. Hartley, the captain, chose to scrummage, but shockingly, Saints let themselves be pinged by referee Dean Richards for an early engagement against a six-man Quins pack scrummaging in 3-2-1 formation.
The free-kick award was part of a third-quarter pattern of the penalty count reversing in Harlequins' favour. And not long after Andress and Easterhad rejoined the action, Northampton's embarrassment redoubled. At a scrum in their 22 on 52 minutes, Roger Wilson at No 8 and the scrum-half Lee Dickson took too long over a clearing kick and Care charged down and hacked on for a try converted by Nick Evans, who had kicked a 29th minute penalty to level the scores three minutes after Myler's opener.
Care, a Liverpool fan, appeared on Twitter yesterday morning with a heartfelt suggestion to Roy Hodgson to "get the cheque book out" and sign David Beckham. The remainder of the second half here was beyond price to Harlequins. "I couldn't be prouder of them," said Conor O'Shea, the director of rugby, after two more penalties by Evans pushed them out to 16-10 and Northampton could manage only a penalty by Shane Geraghty in reply. "That wasn't about coaching; it was about what the players meant to one another," added O'Shea. "We've been saying for a long time we're better than our results at the start of the season showed." With seven wins in nine matches, they are starting to prove it.
Northampton must quickly digest a fourth home defeat in just under four years, and recover for their trip to Leicester in the league on Saturday, then Heineken Cup matches against Edinburgh and Castres to decide their pool placing in Europe. "We talked about keeping the ball and not giving any penalties away," said Jim Mallinder, Saints' director of rugby, of the sin-bin spell. "We gave three penalties away and ran into touch twice." Damnation by faint criticism.
Saints' Tom Wood and Chris Robshaw, the Quins captain, were called up for England training during the autumn and are among the queue to replace the injured Tom Croft in the squad for the Six Nations Championship to be named on 12 January. Robshaw would get the vote if it came down to this memorable performance by him and his team.
Northampton Saints B Foden; C Ashton, J Clarke (J Ansbro, 70), J Downey, P Diggin; S Myler (S Geraghty, 70), L Dickson; S Tonga'uiha, D Hartley (capt), B Mujati, C Lawes, C Day (M Sorenson, 61), P Dowson, R Wilson, T Wood (C Clark, 61).
Harlequins M Brown; T Williams, G Lowe, J Turner-Hall, U Monye; N Evans, D Care; J Marler, M Cairns (C Brooker, 60), J Andress (M Lambert, 63), O Kohn, G Robson (T Vallejos, 51), T Guest (M Lambert, 39-49; W Skinner, 74), N Easter, C Robshaw (capt).
Referee D Richards (Berkshire).