As Saracens staged a spectacular show at sunny Wembley, it was one that secured its place in history, with the largest attendance for any club Premiership match, at 83,889. But while supporters relaxed and enjoyed an Elton John Tribute band before kick-off, the pressure must have been mounting for Harlequins.
It was a must win game for them. Yet looking at the team sheet, it seemed to be Saracens who had put out their strongest side, with Owen Farrell back in the squad after his return from Six Nations duty but the likes of Chris Robshaw, Danny Care and Mike Brown all missing from the Harlequins squad. At such a crucial time in the Aviva Premiership, was this to prove a wise move for Quins?
It was clear from the outset that the two tussling sides were mindful of their game plan, each seemingly attempting to analyse the otherâ€™s within the first ten minutes. It’s safe to say it was a lax and languid start and when David Strettle was knocked unconscious by a swinging arm from Maurie Fa’asaaluv in the first 5 minutes, play stopped and the Mexican wave began.
This static style continued but minutes later, Wembley had cause to roar as a high pass from Nick Easter to Ugo Monye saw an intuitive interception from Saracensâ€™ Chris Ashton who sprinted 80-metres down the pitch and swallow-dived across the line in true trademark fashion. Wembley came alive as Sarries came off the starting blocks!
Apart from this, there was nothing enthralling about the first quarter of play; the crowd providing the light-hearted momentum and continuity, especially when a knock-on by Ashton brought a collective cry of ‘Whey!â€™ Then Quins finally found themselves in the Saracensâ€™ 22 and with a penalty kicked by Nick Evans â€¦ on the board.
But it was the Sarriesâ€™ defence, counter-rucking and several constructive kicks to touch from Owen Farrell, which kept them firmly in the driving seat. And as George Kruis broke through the defensive line with ease to score under the posts, they appeared to have found their form. But not regaining their composure quickly enough, it fell to Karl Dickson with a little show-and-go a couple of minutes later, to put Quins back in the game.
At this point, great fluidity between the Saracensâ€™ forwards and backs saw them steering the game to what looked like a safe victory even before half time. Their ability to make considerable ground was reflected in the score line and their control was compelling. And when Quinsâ€™ Nick Evans threw a long, high pass out wide from within his 22, Owen Farrell seized the gift-wrapped interception opportunity with both hands, reaping the rewards of both try and conversion to make it 20-10 at half time.
Quins returned to the pitch with courage and conviction, further buoyed by the sin binning of Steve Borthwick two minutes into the second half, for taking a man out in the line-out.
Luke Wallace then set up a strong rolling maul and although the forwards pack stumbled just short of the try line, a short pop by Wallace saw Sam Smith score in the corner. Their attacking play looked fast and furious â€“ and that was the problem, there was no consistency.
Again, it became all too easy for the Saracens and it wasnâ€™t long before a sizzling side-stepping Schalk Brits beat several dazed Quins defenders, with a quick off-load for Jacques Burger to score.
The final blow came four minutes from full-time when Marcelo Bosch found a break in the line and took the Saracens back to the top of the Aviva Premiership Table with a 39-17 win.
This stop-start game, however, contained no continued structure. The penalty count for both sides was too high, the play wasn’t really creative or clinical in any way and it was frustrating to watch.
The Man of the Match went to Owen Farrell and I concur that his confident composure controlled the game well but for me he lacked flair, so my Man of the Match was Luke Wallace; a lone star in a lost galaxy. His work-rate, tackles, awareness and focus, preventing Quins from suffering an even more demoralising scoreline.
Overall, it was a poor performance from the Harlequins – at times looking lost and scrappy with no conviction to win. Quite honestly, Quinsâ€™ defence was poor. The back line just weren’t taking the ball on at pace and their inability to break the Saracens defensive line was sacrificial. The pack looked worn with individual efforts but no team consistency today. With the play-offs just around the corner, letâ€™s hope they tighten up and show some tenacity in the coming weeks.
Conor O’Shea told me after the match, â€œWe threw two intercept passes and that effectively is how the game changes. We were completely written-off but this groups likes a challenge.â€
I just hope this team step forward and use their character to take this challenge head on with five games left to play.
As for Saracens? Mark McCall quite rightly said: â€œAt times we did some good stuff but I don’t think we were our best today. When we got it right today we were pretty clinical but there were some frustrations as well.â€
Undoubtedly they’re real contenders for the Aviva Premiership title if they maintain consistency entering the last five rounds of this Premiership.
Full Time: Saracens 39-17 Harlequins
By Rhiannon Chandler-Day
You can see more from Rhiannon at her blog: rhiannonsrugbyunionblog.blogspot.com