The Saints’ recent run of bonus point home wins continued at a sold-out Franklin’s Gardens, Harlequins being overcome by four tries to two.
Of all the teams faced during the past couple of months Harlequins represented the stiffest challenge for the Saints, not least because they named a match day squad including all seven of their Six Nations internationals, five of whom were fresh from winning the Grand Slam with England.
For their part Saints welcomed back George North and Kieran Brookes, with Courtney Lawes having to step up to the starting lineup at late notice. And it was to their credit that all of the returning players contributed massively, slotting back into their club roles quickly and seamlessly to contribute to what was an entertaining game of rugby.
Both teams showed an intent to run the ball from all parts of the field, making the most of the clear conditions and firm pitch. However while the forecast rain did not materialise - shy of a shower right before the break - there was a stiff south-westerly breeze which threatened to play havoc with the goal kicking, something seen after 10 minutes when Stephen Myler’s first shot was blown wide.
Myler would go on to miss his next shot, with opposite number Ben Botica also off target with two penalty attempts in the second half, but the Kiwi had an immaculate first half and his two penalties and conversion helped the visitors to a one-point half-time lead.
Still it was the play with ball in hand which caught the eye, and all three first half tries were worthy of praise.
First over was Alex Waller, who finished off a spell of pressure in the 12th minute as phases went from right to left and back again. Then it was Lawes’s turn, going over from close range as more attacking pressure created massive fissures in the Quins’ rearguard.
Saints’ scores came from good teamwork, but Quins’ were reward for outstanding individualism, Tim Visser showing excellent footwork for a big man to step inside Lawes and Brookes and dance his way into the clear.
Another England returnee, flanker Jack Clifford, continued his team’s theme by scything through an attempted tackle in the first attack of the second half to put Harlequins eight points up. It was a hammer blow for Saints, but as with February’s clash at the Stoop they did not let their heads drop, pulling back three points through Myler five minutes later to keep themselves in touch.
If Saints’ scores before the break had been good, their third was outstanding. Quins were penalised for holding on, with Lee Dickson having no hesitation in getting his fly half partner to go to the touchline.
Possession secured, Saints started to go through the phases and with the defence becoming increasingly desperate Mikey Haywood popped up with a superb drive and offload that took out three men in one fell swoop and create the space for Ben Foden to score.
It was one of those little moments of individual genius which stood out in a game full of them, and there was another to come in the build-up to the fourth try, too.
George Pisi’s run was sensational, the Samoan bouncing several Quins men off on a charge upfield, all the time looking for his support in the process. While there was no one in the immediate vicinity the breakdown play meant that Saints continued to play with front foot ball and Harry Mallinder finished things off in the right corner.
Myler’s conversion was a peach, not least because it meant that Harlequins needed two scores in the final five minutes to get back in front.
They did get within sight of the whitewash, but Saints’ defence held to restrict them to a Botica penalty and maintain the challenge for the top four.
SAINTS Foden; K Pisi, G Pisi, Burrell, North; Myler, Dickson (capt); A Waller, Haywood, Brookes, Craig, Lawes, Gibson, Wood, Harrison
Subs - Marshall, Ma’afu, Hill, Matfield, Dickinson, Fotuali’i, Hanrahan, Mallinder
HARLEQUINS Brown; Walker, Marchant, Roberts, Visser; Botica, Care (capt); Marler, Gray. Collier, Merrick, Horwill, Clifford, Wallace, Easter
Subs - Ward, Lambert, Sinckler, Luamanu, Robshaw, Dickson, Hopper, Chisholm
REFEREE Tim Wigglesworth
8mins QUINS Pen Botica 0-3
10mins SAINTS Miss pen Myler
12mins SAINTS Try A Waller 5-3
18mins QUINS Pen Botica 5-6
24mins SAINTS Try Lawes Con Myler 12-6
32mins QUINS Try Visser Con Botica 12-13
HALF-TIME SAINTS 12 HARLEQUINS 13
41mins QUINS Try Clifford Con Botica 12-20
46mins SAINTS Pen Myler 15-20
54mins SAINTS Try Foden Con Myler 22-20
68mins QUINS Miss pen Botica
70mins QUINS Miss pen Botica
73mins SAINTS Try Mallinder Con Myler 29-20
78mins QUINS Pen Botica 29-23
FULL-TIME SAINTS 29 HARLEQUINS 23