Harlequins sent out a statement to their Premiership rivals that their play-off hopes remain well and truly alive by defeating second-placed Sale Sharks in the first rugby match back in England in more than five months.
Sale arrived with the major addition of Manu Tuilagi starting in midfield, but it was the home side who looked like the only team out in front of an empty Twickenham Stoop. Controlled by young fly-half Marcus Smith, Quins calmly moved out to a 9-0 lead, with the youngster kicking three penalties thanks to Sale’s horrendous penalty record in the opening 40 minutes, with Sale failing to trouble the scoreboard until a 44th-minute try from wing Byron McGuigan.
However, an opportunistic moment of aerial skill from Mike Brown gave Quins the platform to send Wales hooker Scott Baldwin over for a crucial try to stem Sale’s comeback, and though replacement AJ MacGinty took the chance to cut the lead to six, Harlequins held on for a deserved victory.
The first game back in 159 days saw both sides pay tribute to the NHS with a minute’s silence. Of course it has been a long time since Thursday evening’s were spent clapping on doorsteps in lockdown, but that only goes to show how long it has taken to get rugby back to a stage where games can take place safely.
Afterwards, both teams took different approaches to showing their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Harlequins took a knee together as one, while Sale wore T-shirts showcasing the new ‘Rugby Against Racism’ campaign that was launched earlier this week. But with four Sale players choosing to take a knee in Marland Yarde, Tom Curry, Sam Hill and Simon Hammersley, the message was somewhat lost - not least given the side’s eight South African’s remained standing along with Tuilagi, McGuigan and WillGriff John.
But soon enough, rugby was back, and one man was standing out above the rest - in performance rather than height. It’s been three year and three months since Smith first emerged on Eddie Jones’ radar. Few 18 year olds manage to force themselves into a senior England training squad, but there was something about the Brighton College student that caught the Australian’s eye.
Smith spent a year in the England set-up as an apprentice following that training session, once he became a permanent face at Quins, but it took Jones until last summer before giving him a run-out in the non-Test against the Barbarians, where he did not disappoint. Once again, the 21-year-old was under the eye of the England boss, with Jones and his coaching team making up four of the very few allowed into the Stoop on Friday night. The fly-half made exactly what Jones will have wanted to see: a solid start. Smith took all three of his penalty chances in the first half, punishing Sale for their ill-discipline in conceding an alarming 12 penalties in the opening 40 minutes alone by kicking all three of the chances at goal on offer.
But it was a different type of kick that really caught the eye. From deep in his own 22, Smith chipped across the pitch to Chris Ashton, who needed no second invitation to collect and gallop up field against his former side. The former England wing offloaded inside to Joe Marchant, back from his stint alongside Beauden Barrett and Dan Carter with New Zealand’s Blues, who motored in-field to beat two defenders in the process. Mike Brown appeared on his left shoulder to collect an All Blacks-esque offload, taking the home side on another 30 metres before the full-back was stopped. The move ended without success, but it was the eye-catching play that was expected of the side chasing top spot in the league, not the team resuming the season down in seventh.
In contrast to Smith, Rob du Preez looked rusty. The Sale stand-off missed a testing first chance before shanking a straight-forward effort wide of the uprights, which came after Sale’s most threatening attack. Camped on the Harlequins line, Sale did what was expected in the circumstances. They signed Tuilagi for situations like these, with the centre taking possession on a crashball with a clear and obvious target. The England international bundled over the line, but when asked by referee Luke Pearce if a TMO check was needed, Tuilagi confirmed he knocked it forwards. His honesty was appreciated.
Instead, Pearce brought play back for a penalty, but Sale could not convert the pressure as hooker Akker van der Merwe was down injured and receiving treatment. Du Preez went for goal and subsequently shanked it, bringing the half to an end with Quins looking good for their 9-0 lead.
Whether Steve Diamond got stuck into his misfiring side at half-time we’ll never know, but one suspects he did just that as Sale came out for the second half looking like the side who are trying to chase down Exeter Chiefs. It took just four minutes for them to score the first try of the match, with a clinical set-piece move sending McGuigan over. World Cup winner Faf De Klerk fed Du Preez, who utilised the dummy run of Tuilagi to release fellow summer signing Hill in space. With Hammersley cutting in to provide the extra man outside, the full-back committed last man Nathan Earle, allowing Scotland winger McGuigan to dive over. Having made a mess of his first to kicks, Du Preez of course converted from the touchline.
If that was to be Du Preez’s revival, it was short-lived. With Quins on the attack in close range, spilt ball gave Sale the chance to relieve the pressure. But instead Du Preez tried to emulate Smith and spark attack out of defence with a cross-field kick, only to give Brown the opportunity to seize on the ball and come within inches of the try line. Sale had to infringe to stop the inevitable try, resulting in Hammersley seeing the first yellow card of the league’s resumption, and from the ensuing lineout hooker Baldwin drove over to bag Harlequins’ first try. Smith’s conversion gave the hosts breathing space at 16-7 up, while Du Preez headed for the bench, replaced by AJ MacGinty with half an hour still to play.
Sale had arrived with what their own head coach Steve Diamond labelled as one of “two f****** big packs”, but it looked to be costing them. Springbok Lood de Jager had his hands on his head, gulping in the oxygen around him, and if there was a side that had hit the ground running, it was Harlequins.
Broken play allowed replacement wing Denny Solomona to break down the left wing, but his chip and chase resulted in a knock on from a rare Sale attack. MacGinty kicked the penalty to cut the lead to six, but the visitor’s were missing the clinical edge that they had demonstrated so often pre-lockdown and it ultimately cost them dear.
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