It will one of the fascinations of the unfolding season to discover whether anyone can live with Saracens’ power for a full 80 minutes. Toulouse will give it a go in the Heineken Cup at Wembley the week after next; Northampton and Toulon had Sarries’ number in Premiership and European semi-finals at the back end of last season. But England’s current league leaders appear to be growing stronger even as their backroom staff travel the globe tapping up talent from Russian clubs to Tongan youngsters.
A passage of play 10 minutes from full time summed up Quins’ plight. Often referred to as the “red zone”, the five metres closest to Saracens’ goal-line had been foreign territory to the home team all afternoon but there they were, with Mo Fa’asavalu, whose temper had got the better of him earlier in a fierce battle of the back-rows, surging manfully forwards. Saracens swarmed around the Samoan and Mako Vunipola, who had a fine all-round match, stripped him of possession.
When Quins earned a penalty four minutes later Nick Evans accepted the shot at the posts and the chance at least of a losing bonus point. But, having kicked everything well in a wind-assisted first half, Evans hit the right-hand post and Duncan Taylor belted the ball clear.
Harlequins had swooped like ravenous wolves on a series of ponderous Saracens passes in the first quarter, eager to avoid a second home loss in the season’s opening month. The other had been to another title contender, Northampton. Everyone is aware the Premiership cannot be lost in September – “We won home and away to Northampton and Leicester last season and they went to the final,” said Quins’ director of rugby, Conor O’Shea, “and you can’t overreact either way” – but it was important to Quins that their forwards, lacking the injured Nick Kennedy and retired Olly Kohn, had the weapons to hurt a Saracens team chasing what would have been a record start of four bonus-point wins on the spin.
What did hurt Harlequins was that the referee, Martin Fox, was penalising them after the tackle, even when they were going forward through the contact, but Saracens were certainly knocked off their stride, epitomised by the yellow card their England full-back Alex Goode earned when he leant into Ugo Monye near the halfway line to prevent the wing chasing a chip ahead.
Evans had a horror night with the boot in that Saints defeat, but the fly-half kicked four penalties from four attempts in the first half, answered by two from Owen Farrell.
The most eye-catching incident came five minutes before the break when Kelly Brown caught Quins off- guard with a run from the front of a line-out, and the Scot would have scored had it not been for a brilliant cover tackle by Tom Williams.
While the wing, who had led Quins out on his 200th appearance, was busy getting his leg under Brown’s body, other players arrived for a row among themselves. Robshaw gave one of his predecessors as England captain, Steve Borthwick, the mildest of slaps but Fa’a savalu grabbed a fistful of the Saracens flanker Jacques Burger’s curly hair, and went to the sin-bin.
Farrell’s influence gradually increased as his distribution improved, and though Saracens did not often launch the Vunipola brothers Mako and Billy across the gain line, they were strong in other areas. The scrums yielded little playable ball, and anyway Saracens were happiest keeping the ball in – despite having the carrying threat of the younger Vunipola in his favourite position at No 8. The 22-year-old former Wasp may have dropped four stones since his teens but Saracens’ change kit did him no sartorial favours – his grey shorts looked as if they had done previous service as an America’s Cup mainsail.
And though Saracens are much more than just bulky brutes, they were never more scarily intimidating than when James Johnston, who transferred from Harlequins in the summer, trundled on. A one-man cavalry charge, and you fancied you saw some Quins shoulders slumping as the substitution was made.
It came near the end of a third quarter in which Saracens took control. Farrell missed a long-range penalty but soon afterwards the young Lion dummied an outside pass, held off Tom Casson’s grab of his jersey and freed Chris Wyles, who sent Chris Ashton through to score at the posts, Farrell converting. Next, a 35-metre drive by Saracens’ forwards – seeing and raising the earlier good mauling work by Quins – was dragged down, Joe Marler departed to the sin-bin and Farrell’s penalty had Sarries 16-12 up.
Despite the long- and short-term absences respectively of Brad Barritt and Joel Tomkins from their midfield, Saracens ploughed on regardless, with penalties by Farrell on 63 and 67 minutes, the second after George Robson had dived desperately into a line-out drive.
“This was our most satisfying win so far,” said Mark McCall, O’S hea’s Saracens counterpart. “We just built pressure on them all the way through the second half.”
Harlequins: M Brown; T Williams (B Botica, 62), G Lowe (M Hopper, 15-19, 30), T Casson, U Monye; N Evans, D Care (K Dickson, 68); J Marler, R Buchanan (D Ward, 57), W Collier (K Sinckler, 68), N Easter, G Robson (J Trayfoot, 22-32), M Fa’asavalu (L Wallace, 72), C Robshawe (capt), T Guest (M Lambert, 60-65; Trayfoot, 70).
Saracens: A Goode; C Ashton (J Wilson, 78), C Wyles (M Tagicakibau, 77), D Taylor, D Strettle; O Farrell, R Wigglesworth (N de Kock, 51); M Vunipola (N Auterac, 78), S Brits (J George, 73), M Stevens (J Johnston, 57), S Borthwick (capt), G Kruis (A Hargreaves, 51), K Brown (J Wray, 73), J Burger, B Vunipola.
Referee: Martin Fox.