The coruscating finishing of Chris Ashton illuminated a sometimes cack-handed spectacle at England’s national football stadium as Saracens regained second place in the Premiership with four rounds to go.
It attracted a world record attendance for a club rugby match and Ashton’s afternoon finished early in the sin-bin, but his mildest of tip tackles on Harlequins’ Matt Hopper was in no way the least edifying incident among a plethora of errors and stoppages for injury.
There is something about Saracens’ counter-attack, pressure on the breakdown and battering physicality that is too much for Harlequins, who have now won just one of the last 14 meetings with their London rivals. With 84,068 spectators declared officially through the turnstiles, Saracens exceeded the record of 83,889 set at this fixture last year, and, by the by, pulled in a few hundred more than came to the England v Lithuania football on Friday night. Indeed, the club reckon to have shifted 88,000 tickets overall but not everyone turns up.
Either way, an awful lot of people witnessed a bizarre series of incidents. Alastair Hargreaves, the Saracens captain, went off after being clouted in the face accidentally by his own team-mate Jackson Wray. For Harlequins, Chris Robshaw and Nick Easter were penalised by the referee Wayne Barnes for backchat, and the scrum-half Danny Care suffered a bloody nose in a collision with the head of his prop Joe Marler – the third of Quins’ England forwards restored to the team after the Six Nations Championship.
Where there was beauty, it was in the pace and verve of Saracens’ attack, often on the counter after their harrying forced errors from Quins. The try by Chris Wyles after 10 minutes was made with galloping directness after Ugo Monye’s hoofed clearance, as Marcelo Bosch, Ashton and Neil de Kock ran back at Quins. In the 24th minute, while Monye was in the sin-bin for holding on, Ashton scored a brilliant try at the right corner – fed by Charlie Hodgson’s flat pass, the wing who craves an England recall in this World Cup year chipped past Ross Chisholm (playing at full-back in place of the rested Mike Brown) and beat Care to the grounding at full pelt.
Hodgson converted Wyles’s try before the fly-half, impeded by a leg problem, ceded the kicking to Goode for two penalties that had Saracens 21-8 up at half-time.
Quins had scored first with a try in 25 seconds when Jack Clifford struck even quicker than football’s Harry Kane to charge De Kock down at a ruck on the home 22, followed later by a penalty from Nick Evans.
Saracens were reinforced by the Vunipola brothers – Billy at No 8 carried nine times in the first half to show no tiredness from Test exertions – and hope to have their England centre Brad Barritt back for the European quarter-final at Racing Metro next Sunday, while two other totems, hooker Schalk Brits and fly-half Owen Farrell, are expected to be fit within a month.
Two penalties by Evans came either side of Ashton’s second try in the 51st minute. A penalty gave Saracens a line-out claimed by Hargreaves’ replacement Maro Itoje, and with Billy Vunipola distracting the Quins centres as a decoy, the deep-lying Bosch fed Ashton via Wyles for an unstoppable sprint.
“It was a shaky first half but we back ourselves at being composed throughout the game,” said Wyles, who had his second try – running on to Dave Strettle’s volley of a clever Richard Wigglesworth cross-kick – before Billy Vunipola’s catch and drive piledriver finished Quins off. The multi-coloured ones appear to be heading for a mid-table finish, although with seventh qualifying for a European play-off, even mediocrity can have its reward.
Saracens: A Goode; C Ashton, M Bosch, C Wyles, D Strettle (N Tompkins, 74); C Hodgson (C Fercu, 67), N de Kock (R Wigglesworth, 50); M Vunipola (R Gill, 63), J George (S Spurling, 74), J Johnston (B Alo, 63), G Kruis, A Hargreaves (capt, M Itoje, 36), J Wray (K Brown, 50), J Burger, B Vunipola.
Harlequins: R Chisholm (C Walker, 72); M Yarde, M Hopper, H Sloan, U Monye; N Evans (B Botica, 77), D Care (K Dickson, 61); J Marler (capt, M Lambert 69), D Ward (R Buchanan, 61), K Sinckler (M Shields, 35), C Matthews (L Wallace, 50), G Robson, J Clifford (N Talei, 50-60), C Robshaw, N Easter.
Referee: W Barnes (London).Reuse content