It was wet – really wet – at the Stoop last night, and it suited Northampton all the way down to the sodden ground.
A try just on the hour by the midfielder James Wilson was enough to split two of the Premiership’s better sides and when the bad weather really kicks in later in the year, the Midlanders will take an awful lot of handling.
Perhaps the first thing to say about Northampton is that when they pick a side like this, they are brutishly big – almost troll-like, in a Tolkienesque kind of way. Three of their backs, Wilson and his fellow centre Luther Burrell, together with the Lions wing George North, could happily operate in the back row of the pack. Talking of which, “the Saints” travelled south with just about the most aggressive set of forwards in Christendom. It was difficult to spot many saints among that little lot.
With the rain teeming down, Quins knew full well what awaited them – a long night of fierce, unrelenting, close-quarter pain – and to their immense credit, they met the challenge head on. Joe Marler, the most fiery of their own forwards, made it his business to fall out with whoever materialised on his radar. He had a brief spat with Calum Clark, then a longer one with Tom Mercey, the Northampton tight-head prop. As a result, the referee Andrew Small called the two captains together and read the riot act.
The visitors, driven along by some howitzer punts from the outside-half Stephen Myler, mounted some driving assaults in the Quins 22 during a hard first half while the Londoners looked to their own No 10, Nick Evans, to unlock a door or two with some wide-angled kicks for his wings. Nothing quite worked, though. When the interval arrived the contest was locked at 3-3, the two kickers having landed a penalty apiece.
Evans had missed a couple of perfectly acceptable mid-range opportunities in the first period and when he fluffed an easier chance shortly after the restart, there were squirms of discomfort among the Stoop regulars. But he hit the mark with a left-sided penalty after Small had objected to Northampton’s line-out defence routine and when the Quins lock George Robson clattered Dylan Hartley with a turnover tackle a few metres from his own line, it seemed the home side might consolidate their advantage.
Much to their frustration, however, they allowed Myler a clear sight of the sticks when the England captain Chris Robshaw dragged down a maul and equality was promptly restored. And so the struggle continued: there was barely a smidgen of space for the powerful North, although he did make one trademark burst, and nothing doing around the fringes for the darting Danny Care.
Something freakish was required and it duly happened to Northampton’s delight when Alex Waller, on for the wounded Lions prop Alex Corbisiero, snaffled a ricocheting ball in the Quins 22 and allowed Burrell to throw out a long pass off his left hand. It was misdirected, but having failed to gather, Wilson had the time to loop around Jamie Elliott and touch down in the right corner. Myler converted, rather majestically, from the touchline, and although he would finish the night in the cooler after being found guilty of a deliberate knock-on, his job was done.
Scorers: Harlequins: Penalties Evans 2. Northampton: Try Wilson. Conversion Myler; Penalties Myler 2.
Harlequins: M Brown; T Williams (S Smith 62), G Lowe, T Casson (K Dickson 72-75), U Monye; N Evans (B Botica 58), D Care; J Marler (M Lambert 18), J Gray (R Buchanan 13), P Doran Jones (W Collier 53), G Merrick (T Guest 64), G Robson, M Fa’asavalu (L Wallace 68), C Robshaw (capt), N Easter.
Northampton: B Foden; K Pisi (J Elliott 57), J Wilson, L Burrell, G North; S Myler, K Fotuali’i (L Dickson 57); A Corbisiero (A Waller 62), D Hartley (capt), T Mercey (G Denman 44), C Lawes (S Dickinson 42), C Day, T Wood, C Clark (P Dowson 57), S Manoa.
Referee: A Small (London).