Care and Brown put Quins back on track to leave Saints with ‘big mountain’ to climb
17 Danny Care and Mike Brown provided reminders of their class in a bonus-point victory for Harlequins that dealt a significant blow to Northampton’s play-off prospects.
Two more of Paul Gustard’s senior players, Chris Ashton and Chris Robshaw, were among the try-scorers as Alex Dombrandt delivered a fine performance in front of England coaches Eddie Jones and John Mitchell.
With both teams coming off midweek defeats, and aiming to prevent a slide towards lower-table ignominy, the stakes felt high. In the end, Saints faded to their third loss in four games post-lockdown.
The know-how of Ashton, Brown, Care and Robshaw, who boast 266 England caps between them, was especially important.
“It was a must-win for both sides,” said Care after a sparky outing. “Robbo [Robshaw] put it on us that we needed five points and to score four tries.
“It was great to see the reaction because it was a really poor outing from us on Wednesday (in a 29-14 defeat by Worcester). We had to
Harlequins Northampton turn that around and it’s a big two weeks for us now.”
This was Northampton’s second away match at the Twickenham Stoop in eight days following their 27-3 win over London Irish – who are ground-sharing with Harlequins.
Ashton scurried after Marcus Smith’s kick-off and slammed into Matt Proctor, yet the Saints centre responded quickly. In the sixth minute, Rory Hutchinson’s short pass slipped him through a gap in Harlequins’ defensive line from a line-out. Proctor stayed calm in space and linked up with his midfield partner, Hutchinson finishing from 25 metres.
Smith pulled back three points from the tee and mistakes from James Grayson and Alex Mitchell, both of whom overcooked touchfinders, stalled Saints. But it was a fairly open contest full of offloads.
Another breakdown penalty helped the hosts after the drinks break. Ryan Olowofela broke out from his own try-line but was enveloped and conceded possession to a jackalling Care.
Brown tapped the penalty and fed Dombrandt, who sucked in three tacklers and flicked the ball to his full-back. Although Jones and Mitchell have plenty of back-rowers to monitor, the skill – and Dombrandt’s display as a whole – would have certainly registered. Brown’s looping pass then set Nathan Earle clear.
A disputed scrum penalty, which drew a few touchline expletives from Harlequins coach Adam Jones, gave Saints field position for their second try. Grayson delivered a fizzing pass to Olowofela before landing the conversion.
Harlequins hit back, a surging maul carrying Scott Baldwin over. The conversion kissed the outside of the post but Smith soon made amends, slotting his second penalty on the stroke of half-time. When the sides reappeared for the second period, the 21-year-old fly-half conjured a very popular try.
Smith danced around loosehead
Trademark finish: Chris Ashton goes over for Harlequins’ final try, and his 88th in the Premiership prop Danny Hobbs-Awoyemi and, although he was hauled down two metres short, quick ruck ball allowed Ashton to feed Robshaw and the arch-poacher then secured the bonus point himself.
Brown, typically elusive and tenacious all afternoon, escaped a number of defenders, powered up the middle and found Dombrandt. Ashton bustled on to his colleague’s shoulder and had enough pace to score his 88th Premiership try.
Grayson reduced Harlequins’ healthy lead with a penalty. With 20 minutes remaining and Northampton trailing 30-17, Chris Boyd stepped up the chase by unloading Taqele Naiyaravoro and Teimana Harrison from his bench.
Even though a mind-numbing series of scrum resets ate into the remaining time, Saints had opportunities to salvage at least a bonus point. Appropriately, though, the game fizzled out – as Northampton’s season seems to be doing – with an error from Boyd’s men.
They still have a Champions Cup quarter-final, against Exeter Chiefs at Sandy Park, a daunting prospect. Boyd was left to rue “frisky” moments and “dumb decisions”.
“It’s a hell of a big mountain now but it’s not dead,” said the director of rugby of his side’s top-four chances. “We have an obligation to chase that next Friday against Exeter, which we will, but one more [defeat] would be terminal.”
Harlequins will be far more buoyant, not least because their next assignment – at home against Bath – is a pilot event that is due to welcome 3,500 of their supporters.
After saluting how the “spine” of his team – from Joe Marler through to Brown via Robshaw, Dombrandt, Care and Smith – directed proceedings, Gustard singled out Ashton for praise.
“You certainly know he is around the place,” said Harlequins’ head of rugby. “He is a proper senior international player. 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.”