Danny Care, Harlequins' England scrum-half, spoke for the league leaders after a fearsome forwards' performance in Saturday's 18-9 win at Northampton. "We wanted to send out a statement to the rest of the Premiership," said Care, "that we're the champions and we want to be the champions again."
While the director of rugby, Conor O'Shea, is Harlequins' front man, head coach John Kingston is foremost in schooling a pack which piled into Northampton in the scrum and maul and made a hellish mess of their line-out. Full-back Mike Brown was named man of the match in front of the watching England head coach Stuart Lancaster, and Brown spoke afterwards of a "hard edge" in the pack dating from the time of O'Shea's predecessor, Dean Richards.
Brown was used on the wing by England in the autumn Tests – starting there against South Africa and New Zealand – even though full-back is the position he knows and loves. A pow-wow 10 days ago between O'Shea, Brown, Lancaster and England's backs coach Andy Farrell appeared to include no ultimatums. "As long as I can put on that white jersey, I'll give 100 per cent in any position I get given," Brown said. "If it be wing I'll make sure I do the best job I can. England did let me have a free role to work around the pitch against New Zealand."
Quins had spent the previous fortnight running in 15 tries against Zebre whereas Saints were toe-to-toe with Ulster, including a notable win in Belfast. But Northampton's fourth defeat in five home matches adds up to their worst run since the relegation season of 2006-07, when they lost five in a row from New Year's Day. That deep trough was followed by a sustained peak: after losing 7-5 to Gloucester at Franklin's Gardens on 3 March 2007, Saints stayed unbeaten there for 29 matches until February 2009. Now they need to find the extra touch of class to challenge for top honours, though O'Shea predicted they would make the play-offs.
Care outplayed his England rival Lee Dickson, apart from conceding one daft penalty, and Brown caught every high ball and kicked well, though he barely laid a hand on his opposite number Ben Foden when the latter knifed inside for a 22nd-minute 'try' ruled out for a debatable forward pass from George Pisi to Foden. The whistle went before Foden grounded the ball. "Ridiculous," said Northampton boss Jim Mallinder, who would have preferred referee Wayne Barnes to have taken the video review.
Lancaster, meanwhile, said he was "happy with the squads we've got", suggesting few changes in personnel when England's revised senior squad is named on 9 January.
Northampton: Penalties Myler 2, Lamb. Harlequins: Penalties Evans 6.
Northampton B Foden; K Pisi, G Pisi, T May (D Waldouck, 57), J Elliott; S Myler (R Lamb, 72), L Dickson (M Roberts, 72); S Tonga'uiha (A Waller, 63), M Haywood, P Doran Jones (B Mujati, 52), S Manoa, C Lawes (M Sorenson, 69), P Dowson (capt), T Wood, GJ van Velze.
Harlequins M Brown; T Williams, M Hopper, T Casson, U Monye; N Evans, D Care; J Marler (M Lambert, 67), J Gray, J Johnston, O Kohn, G Robson, M Fa'asavalu (W Collier, 60-67; T Guest, 67), C Robshaw (capt), N Easter.
Referee W Barnes (London).