In what emerged as a battle between England’s past and the future, Harlequins proved the old adage that there is no substitute for experience. Eddie Jones will have afforded himself a wry smile in the stands as fine performances from Mike Brown, Danny Care and try-scorers Chris Ashton and Chris Robshaw guided Harlequins to an emphatic victory.
That players who have usurped them at international level – George Furbank, Alex Mitchell and Lewis Ludlam – came off significantly second best made this bonus-point win all the sweeter as Harlequins moved to within seven points of the top four. There were some impressive performances from some of the youngsters hoping to catch the eye of Jones, too – Marcus Smith again shone and Alex Dombrandt was at his physical best – but there is no doubting that their thirtysomethings were integral to the win.
These are tough times for Northampton, however, for whom this was a third defeat from four since the resumption, and a place in the play-offs is looking all the more unlikely. Harlequins, moreover, put their dispiriting defeat by Worcester behind them with tries from Nathan Earle and Scott Baldwin in the first half and Robshaw and Ashton in the second. “The spine of the team played very well,” said their head of rugby, Paul Gustard. “When they play well it gives us direction in attack.”
Both began with admirable intent to play – both perhaps aware that attack may be the best form of defence. Northampton’s centres in particular caught the eye early on and combined delightfully for the opening try.
After a lineout near halfway, Rory Hutchinson fed a short pass to Matt Proctor, who scythed through the Quins defence before giving the return pass to Hutchinson. The home side, however, were on the board with a penalty from Smith and ahead when Brown went himself, exchanging passes with Dombrandt and flinging a lovely long pass for Earle to cruise over in the left corner for his first try in 18 months.
Back came Northampton with a series of penalties of their own. They were kicked to the corner and it paid dividends when James Grayson fizzed a pass out of his left hand to Ryan Olowofela. Again the visitors were architects of their own downfall, however, and more indiscipline allowed Smith to kick to the corner and Baldwin to burrow over from the resulting lineout drive. Another Smith penalty brought an absorbing half to a close.
If Northampton had been in the fight for the first 40 minutes, they wilted in the second half. Ashton put Robshaw over in the left corner after an arcing run from Smith had Saints reeling. Three minutes later came the pick of the bunch from Ashton. Brown set off from deep, capitalising on a slip from a Northampton defender before passing to Dombrandt, who in turn found the former England wing for his 88th Premiership try, complete with splash celebration.
“He can score and dive and do whatever he wants to do because he can score points – I don’t mind him diving,” Gustard said. “He might not be in Eddie Jones’s England plans at the moment but he is still a Test match wing in terms of try-scoring.”
Northampton had the chance to respond but Tom Collins fumbled the ball with the try-line beckoning. It was a dreadful error and though they had the penalty advantage, Grayson failed to find touch. It was a passage that summed up Saints’ problems and though they probed for the bonus point late on, it never really looked like arriving. “Top-four is still alive but it’s a hell of a big mountain now,” said their director of rugby Chris Boyd. “One more loss will be terminal.”