Northampton 15 Harlequins 28: Strettle sees off the street fighters

Quins' flying winger settles a bruising battle to leave Saints in desperate straits
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Gladiatorial? Russell Crowe would not have fancied this one little bit. It is as well that Brian Ashton's England elite were not involved here. It's not necessarily the amount of rugby played that leads to injuries, it's the level of ferocity and when you get a famous old club fighting, literally at times, for Premiership survival and a pastel-shaded London outfit whom everybody loves to hate, then it's seconds out.

Northampton's desperation was understandable even if some of their tactics were inexcusable, but when hostilities ceased it was not difficult to see why they are up to their shoulders in quicksand. When Ben Cohen - remember him? - scored a contender for try of the season to launch the second half, Saints were 12-7 ahead and the game was there to be won.

Instead Quins ran away with it, and their third try, in the last minute by the replacement scrum-half Steve So'oialo, denied Northampton so much as a losing bonus point. That could yet be important. Although Worcester lost to Leicester they gained a point and the gap between 11th and 12th, where the dead men lie, is down to three points. Northampton have a game in hand and on this form they may well need it.

"We either put the ball on the floor or handed it back to them," Paul Grayson, the Saints coach, said. "Pressure inhibits people and makes them tighten up and we're under a lot of pressure. It's a big weight to bear. It's easy to talk about it but doing it is a different thing. There were mistakes across the board and the players hold their hands up. They know that we're not here by accident."

The match was in its first minute when Stuart Abbott was mashed in a Cohen and Paul Tupai sandwich and failed to get up. Abbott has never been the same since breaking a leg when playing for Wasps a few years ago and his appearances for Quins have been limited by injuries. Yesterday, when he got to the changing room having only just left it, he did not know where he was or what day it was. Although he recovered, wisely they did not send him out for more.

The referee, Dave Pearson, repeatedly lectured the captains, Bruce Reihana and Paul Volley, to keep their men in order. From the word go, Volley and Carlos Spencer were at it. In their first engagement, Volley ruffled Spencer's hair, the former All Black responding by yanking one of the flanker's legs. That little battle went unnoticed.

Volley, an old warrior who can look after himself, was in his element. After receiving another admonishment from Pearson he was lectured again midway through the first half, for killing not Spencer but the ball. A minute or so later he and the Saints lock Christian Short were sent to the sin-bin for fighting.

The Saints did more of the sinning but Quins often reacted unprofessionally. "I have not seen a physical confrontation like that for a long time," Dean Richards, the Quins coach, said, and he has seen, or been in the middle of, just about everything. Then Richards couldn't help putting the boot in.

"If Northampton concentrated more on the rugby they wouldn't be where they are today. They won enough ball to have scored a lot more tries. In the first 25 minutes Paul Volley was targeted four times. I felt sorry when he got carded. He was attacked first and he reacted to it. In many ways he was my man of the match."

As it was, that honour went to the Quins wing David Strettle, who has been a tremendous signing this season. Saints were trailing 7-5 at half-time and Adrian Jarvis's kick to re-start the match was taken in full stride by Cohen, who set off on one of his trademark tries, a magnificent swerving run that took him about 70 yards. Almost immedtiately, though, Cohen was easily beaten by his opposite number, Strettle, who came off the right wing to make it 12-12.

Quins edged ahead through a series of penalties by Jarvis, a sound understudy for Andrew Mehrtens, who was injured in training. Talking of All Black stand-offs, Spencer did very little with a surfeit of possession. Young Jarvis did his club proud.

Reihana, playing his first match in five months following a knee injury, landed a penalty to make it 18-15 but there was to be no dream comeback for the Northampton captain. Instead the nightmare season continues, So'oialo's late try finishing for Quins what their other scrum-half, Andy Gomarsall, had started in the third minute, touching down after charging down an attempted clearance kick by Spencer. Northampton, who have now lost six of their last seven Premiership matches, had kept in touch with a try by Tupai from a rolling maul. The first half lasted 51 minutes, caused by a combination of injuries and lengthy lectures about foul play.

Northampton: B Reihana (capt); S Lamont; R Kydd; D Quinlan (S Myler, 77); B Cohen; C Spencer; M Robinson (J Howard, 61); T Smith; D Hartley; P Barnard (S Tonga'uiha, 7); D Browne; C Short; A Rae; P Tupai; D Fox (B Lewitt, 75).

Harlequins: M Brown; D Strettle; M Deane; S Abbott (H Luscombe, 1); U Monye; A Jarvis; A Gomarsall (S So'oialo, 68); A Croall; T Fuga; M Ross; O Cohn; J Evans; A Vos; N Easter; P Volley (capt).

Referee: D Pearson (Northumberland).