We will have to wait and see the merit in Conor O'Shea's confident assertion that there was enough of a moral victory in this defeat to guarantee better results over the course of a long season. The Harlequins director of rugby rightly said his side had created "shedloads of chances", but Northampton had prepared in the knowledge that "mental softness", as their coach, Jim Mallinder, put it, had cost them victory on their last two visits. Indeed, Saints had been beaten in their three matches against Quins at The Stoop since 2004, so the trio of escape acts they perpetrated in the final six minutes to seal the win yesterday were all the sweeter.
Quins had trailed 13-0 just before half-time, then led 16-13 when the centre George Lowe scored a try at the posts, created with rare artistry by the scrum-half Danny Care and the replacement No 8, Tom Guest, in the 55th minute. With 74 minutes gone they were 20-16 down, having seen the Northampton flanker Tom Wood – a star on the rise since his summer move from Worcester – charge across the gain line to set up a try for Dylan Hartley that was converted by Shane Geraghty. Then Northampton conceded a penalty for not releasing. Quins went for touch and Matt Cairns overthrew Nick Easter at the front of the line-out.
Two more penalties to Quins as they continued to attack led to a scrum 10 metres from the Northampton line with 55 seconds remaining on the clock. At length, Tom Williams brushed past a tackle from Joe Ansbro, who had only just appeared as a replacement, and the Quins prop Joe Marler was held up at the corner. The clock showed zero. Care made one last attempt at a break and might very well have made it but Chris Ashton, his England team-mate on the Northampton wing, got enough of a tackle in to dislodge the ball. Ashton was offering his smiling condolences even before the final whistle went; Care, not surprisingly, took a few seconds to acknowledge them.
"We'll put some teams to the sword if we play like that," O'Shea said, though his side are winless after the opening draw with Wasps. He also regretted that Northampton had defended "two yards off the line" when Care knocked on midway through the first half, trying a tap-and-go from very short range. Two penalties by Geraghty either side of a miss by the Saints fly-half and one from his Quins counterpart, Nick Evans, had Northampton 6-0 up. In the 37th minute a tackle forced Quins' Mike Brown to spill an intended pass, James Downey hacked on and Ashton ran at top speed and sidefooted the ball with control to score. The try was converted by Geraghty.
Evans kicked a penalty in first-half injury time, which was for a collapsed maul, and two more in the first 10 minutes of the second half before he converted Lowe's try. On one occasion Hartley was penalised for going in at the side when counterattacking a ruck. On another, Quins' Will Skinner fell foul of the reinforced interpretation that obliges players to retreat and wait until a team-mate who has kicked the ball has played them onside. "That's Law 11.1(a)," a supporter in the East Stand very nearly commented.
Yes, it's official: the referees are smiling again. The poor loves do have feelings, you know, and fed up in the first half of last season with whistling oodles of penalties against the attacking side, they were influential in steering the Premiership towards the February meeting which changed several interpretations, and on to the International Rugby Board's 10 directives that were issued in May.
It would be snazzier if they were 10 commandments, although of course against the party line of all the chaps being in this together which administrators and coaches are sticking to – at least until the whistle blows against one side too often and it falls apart. We will see how long the entente lasts; perhaps until the autumn when the All Blacks arrive and run all over the home unions? The referee here, Andrew Small, avoided showing any yellow cards, having awarded four in the Saracens v London Irish match the previous week, even though O'Shea conceded that his side might have deserved one in the first half and asserted that Northampton, who began well on top in the scrum, "should have been down to 14 men at the end".
Geraghty had a couple of shaky incidents: a kick that went dead when he had time to judge it and a clump of a shot at goal which hit a post after 52 minutes. He also weighted another kick nicely to hit touch and played well in tight corners. It was that kind of match; good and bad for both teams. But Northampton are the ones with two wins out of two.
Harlequins: M Brown; T Williams, G Lowe, J Turner-Hall, U Monye; N Evans, D Care; C Jones (J Marler, 44), C Brooker (M Cairns, 44), M Lambert (J Johnston, 44), O Kohn (T Guest, 50), T Vallejos (P Browne, 76), C Robshaw (capt), N Easter, W Skinner.
Northampton Saints: B Foden; C Ashton, J Clarke (J Ansbro, 79), J Downey, B Reihana; S Geraghty, L Dickson; S Tonga'uiha (R Dreyer, 76), D Hartley (capt; B Sharman, 72), B Mujati (E Murray, 63), C Lawes (C Clark, 72), C Day, P Dowson (M Easter, 63), R Wilson, T Wood.
Referee: A Small (London).