If the first leg of the Aviva Premiership semi-final on Friday night was anything to go by, surely the second leg would give fans just such a treat?
Well the game didn’t prove to be quite the contest that Harlequins had hoped for. Quins entered half time with a six point lead but Sarries subsequently racked up twenty unanswered points after the break to comprehensively claim their rightful place in the Aviva Premiership final.
A sea of red and black flags flew proudly at Allianz Park as 9,962 supporters arrived to revel in the sunshine and witness this crucial clash between the two London teams.
The home side was welcomed onto the pitch by the pulsating power of music, fuelling the full-on intensity and anticipation that swirled round the stadium in a sun-lit stream. A fantastic yet emotional spectacle as captain Steve Borthwick cradled his child on his home pitch – for the last time.
An air of caution saw the first phases of play proving quite conservative; you could have sliced through the tension with a knife and early penalties from both Nick Evans and Owen Farrell opened up the scoreboard nicely.
But controversy followed when what appeared to be a spear tackle by Schalk Brits on Kyle Sinckler ground the game to a halt. The TMO, Graham Hughes, was consulted and Brits was exonerated to cries of disbelief from the Quins supporters.
Referee Barnes later awarded Saracens a penalty but Farrell unexpectedly missed with the ball rebounding off a post.
Karma was knocking on Saracens’ door.
And payback time came swiftly, when a massive hit from Sinckler on Jacques Burger heard the Harlequins army roar with delight. It was clear the Harlequins momentum had gone up a notch or two.
This game was proving to pack a punch!
Pivotal moments came when Marcelo Bosch was sin-binned for a tip-tackle on Evans and the second yellow card of the afternoon saw Matt Stevens in the bin for deliberately knocking the ball forward.
With Sarries down to thirteen men, surely Quins would score?
Of course, it was Ugo Monye who easily crossed the try line, seven minutes shy of half time, and Evans finished it off. No-quitters-Quins had earned their place in this semi fair and square and were vying for victory and a place in the final.
The 16th man didn’t hold back either, when ‘Stand Up for the Saracens’ became altered to ‘Stand up for the Harlequins’. And slowly but surely, Harlequins supporters around me began to sing and stand up. It was intuitive and humorous; this London header was proving provocative and entertaining!
But this didn’t prevent the Saracens from re-grouping and attacking with a victory hungry vengeance and Billy Vunipola bashed down the Quins defence, enabling Kelly Brown to roll over in the corner.
Nervous or off-form however – Farrell missed – yet again. And that was shortly followed by another miss from the boot of Bosch from the halfway line.
Any danger Saracens?
Yes. A rebound off Alistair Hargreaves saw Mike Brown do the business, showing off his sizzling fancy football skills, he chased down his own kick, grounding with a flourish. With Evans delivering the conversion with composure, Harlequins had taken an unexpected 11-17 lead going into half time.
Back out and flaky Farrell became shaky as his penalty kick went wide and Bosch was no better. Between the boot of Bosch and Farrell they had missed 13 points so far.
But after a handful of heavy crash ball attempts, Brad Barritt muscled his way through the Quinsâ€™ defence to add the points. Harlequins’ hopes looked to be diminishing and an off-the-ball tackle from Luke Wallace on Farrell aided the fly half to finally find his feet and slot the penalty.
It was a gruelling last quarter for the Harlequins, as the Saracens tore up their defence. Quins really looked exhausted and in disarray now and a fantastic offload from Kelly Brown enabled Chris Ashton to swallow dive across; Farrellâ€™s boot obeyed and Saracens soldiered though to an eleven point lead.
But even when Farrell’s conclusive penalty kick took the Saracens out of sight, the Quins fans were still in â€˜forte voceâ€™ and resorted to singing,
‘Oh When the Saints, go Marching in!’
…You would only get that at a rugby match!
Full Time: Saracens 31-17 Harlequins
Saracens went in for the kill with a resounding victory in the second half, 20-0.
I spoke with Mark McCall after the game and he reiterated this:
â€œI thought our second half performance was outstanding; we won the second half twenty points to nil and could’ve won it by more … I thought we fought unbelievably hard, scoring Kelly’s try when we were down to fourteen men.â€
Saracens are rightful winners and an exceptional side to watch. They demonstrate dangerous, dominant, clinical and concise skills, in all phases of play.
Unfortunately Harlequins just lacked that spark and finesse to edge it, but nevertheless an indisputable and very positive end to the season, as Conor O’Shea reflected after the game;
â€œI’m unbelievably proud of the way our guys fought out there, even at the end.â€
â€œI look back at this season and the two best sides are in the final. I think ourselves and Leicester have fought tooth and nail to get ourselves into that position but I suppose the combination of everything, we just ran out of a bit of steam. We’ll dust ourselves down and be back next season.â€
Saracens play Northampton Saints on Saturday 31st May in the Aviva Premiership final at Twickenham.
By Rhiannon Chandler-Day (@RhiannonCDay)
To see more from Rhiannon, please check out her rugby blog at: rhiannonsrugbyunionblog.blogspot.co.ukrhiannonsrugbyunionblog.blogspot.co.uk