Saracens wrote a page into rugby union history by hosting a world-record crowd for a club match but it came with a kick in the guts for the champions. Missing personnel left them a notch or two below their asphyxiating best in defence and an inability to turn a surfeit of possession into enough points was costly. A battling effort that cost the league leaders three yellow cards did the rest. Joe Marler, Danny Care and Nick Easter trotted off in the last quarter for a variety of illegal fingers in the dyke but their hands were raised in celebration at the end. Quins extended their lead in the table to six points and moved closer to a home play-off semi-final.
Two p-words dominated the post-match assessments. "For us it meant more psychologically," said Quins' director of rugby, Conor O'Shea, reflecting on a first win in six meetings between the sides. "We showed we can be a good rugby team," said his Saracens counterpart, Mark McCall, "but physically we've got to be a lot better. We got a lesson in finishing and we lost a lot of collisions."
Aided by the support for their London rivals, Saracens attracted 83,761 spectators, outstripping the record set by Leinster and Munster at Croke Park in 2009. Of course, it helps that Wembley has room for 90,000. The previous English best was the 82,000 who watched Harlequins and Saracens at Twickenham in December, meaning the clubs have mustered more than 165,000 spectators for their two league meetings this season.
The intensity of Saracens is what has earned them two Premiership finals in the past two seasons, but they lacked the tackling of the centre Brad Barritt and the injured flankers Jacques Burger, Andy Saull and Kelly Brown. While Barritt was being best man at his brother's wedding in South Africa Quins had the England captain, Chris Robshaw, back after missing a win over Bath. It all encouraged the likes of Quins' Jordan Turner-Hall to steal valuable ground around the fringes.
Harlequins were ferocious in the tackle, if at the cost of a glut of first-half penalties, and by half-time they had a 14-12 lead with tries by Turner-Hall and his fellow centre George Lowe converted by fly-half Nick Evans to four penalties by Owen Farrell for Saracens. Thereafter there was one magnificent corner-flagging tackle after another by Quins as Saracens upped the pace.
The Sarries chairman, Nigel Wray, whose financing has been boosted by huge South African investment since 2009, noted proudly in the programme that when he watched the same fixture for the first time 17 years ago, in "the mud and the rain" of Southgate, the attendance was around 1,000. Ruling out that Francis Maude had hinted earlier this week at a nationwide shortage of rugby tickets, how had this happened?
The answer lay in the use of imagination and millions of pounds – "it's cost a great deal both in terms of finance and effort," Wray wrote – to subsidise discounted tickets and pay for vigorous work by community staff around north London, Hertfordshire and Essex. Where next? Heineken Cup matches in Cape Town and a new home at Copthall are the main aims. Assuming no judicial review, Sarries have planning permission for a 10,000-capacity venue with an artificial pitch and hope to take up residence next season.
This eighth match in three seasons at Wembley provided a second loss. Charlie Hodgson's distribution from fly-half grew more effective but Owen Farrell, the England No 10 of late, stood in that position only when defending set pieces and on a couple of occasions missed chances to straighten attacks, giving Quins scope to force Michael Tagicakibau, Chris Wyles and others out at the corners. Quins, too, were keen to take quick throws and taps, and Rory Clegg came on for Evans, who hurt an ankle, to kick a penalty and convert Care's try. The scrum-half finished Mike Brown's burst and Tom Guest's supporting run after 57 minutes for 24-12. "One of the finest team tries we'll score," said O'Shea.
Schalk Brits, the Saracens hooker, could not have done more to force his side forward. Marler saw yellow for not rolling away after 61 minutes and when Care followed eight minutes later, Richard Wigglesworth scrambled over from the base of the scrum. Farrell converted. Marler returned, Easter went off for barging in a line-out and still Quins held out. Brits was at the heart of a drive that was turned over at the final whistle, as 15 played 13. Saracens, in second, may now fear losing a home play-off to in-form Leicester. Before that they must restore their pomp to take on Clermont Auvergne in Europe, in humbler Watford next Sunday.
Saracens A Goode; D Strettle, C Wyles, O Farrell, J Short (M Tagicakibau, 58); C Hodgson, N de Kock (R Wigglesworth, 51); M Stevens, S Brits, C Nieto (M Vunipola, 49), S Borthwick (capt), M Botha (G Kruis, 58), J Melck (J Wray, 58), E Joubert, W Fraser.
Harlequins M Brown; T Williams, G Lowe, J Turner-Hall, S Smith; N Evans (R Clegg, 40), D Care; J Marler, R Buchanan, J Johnston, O Kohn (T Vallejos, 72), G Robson, M Fa'asavalu (T Guest, 54; M Lambert, 62-72; K Dickson, 72), N Easter, C Robshaw (capt).
Referee G Garner (London).
Pens: Farrell 4
Tries: Care, Lowe, Turner-Hall
Cons: Clegg, Evans 2