Northampton Saints were beaten 41-27 by Harlequins in Big Game 13 at Twickenham Stadium on Monday evening.
The men in Black, Green and Gold trailed by just two points at the interval after a free-scoring first half for both sides, with Quins edging the try count four-three after Alex Waller burrowed over and Juarno Augustus crossed twice.
But the reigning Gallagher Premiership champions pulled away after half-time thanks to a breakaway score from Louis Lynagh, and Quins rubbed salt in the wound as England No.8 Alex Dombrandt grabbed a try with the clock in the red to deny Saints a losing bonus point.
Northampton opened the scoring with only three minutes on the clock; George Furbank’s break led to a Saints penalty which Dan Biggar kicked to the corner, and from the rolling maul it was Augustus who came up with the ball.
But the hosts hit back almost immediately as Waller was harshly penalised at the breakdown, and after Will Edwards kicked to the corner, Dombrandt crashed over from short range.
Both Biggar and Edwards were on target with the conversion attempts to take the score to 7-7, but Saints then opened up a lead with two quick scores.
Some quick thinking – and a little good fortune – from Furbank in the tenth minute led to a try, as the fullback’s attempted grubber through came off his shin and ended up in front of Augustus. The big No.8 hacked on and gratefully scooped up the ball for this second try of the evening.
Then, five minutes later, Lewis Ludlam put the gas down on the left wing and burst through two tackles to set up Northampton’s third – with Waller’s quick thinking seeing him burrow over the whitewash on the next phase.
Biggar landed both conversions from out wide, but Quins responded after 18 minutes as patient play inside Saints’ 22 saw them build the phases, and Edwards eventually sent Caden Murley through a gap to score before converting himself from the kicking tee to make it 14-21.
And Quins were level just after the half-hour mark, with Murley going over again as Andre Esterhuizen got his hands free with penalty advantage and released the winger, who slid over in the corner under pressure from Alex Mitchell – Edwards’ conversion attempt went through off the posts to make it 21 apiece.
Northampton lost Matt Proctor to injury during that passage of play, with Rory Hutchinson entering the action, but won a penalty straight off the kick-off which Biggar calmly slotted to put Saints back in front.
But, on the stroke of half-time, Quins turned down a shot at goal and were rewarded for their bravery as Danny Care stripped the ball out of a rolling maul and offloaded to the onrushing Dombrandt who scored to send his side into the sheds with a slender 26-24 advantage.
Saints started the second half in the ascendancy, as they did the first, with another Biggar penalty seeing the lead change hands again after Quins were caught offside.
But as the rain came down, the contest became scrappier and Northampton were penalised with increasing regularity by referee Wayne Barnes.
And the men in Black, Green and Gold were dealt a blow by a breakaway score down the short side, as Luke Northmore bypassed the last defender with a perfectly-timed pass to Lynagh, who galloped into the corner from halfway to make it 31-27.
Saints continued to stick with the league’s defending champions, but gave up field position with several infringements and eventually Marchant got over the ball at a breakdown inside Saints’ 22 to win a vital 73rd-minute penalty – which Edwards kicked to take Quins seven points clear.
And as the clock ticked down, Courtnall Skosan’s clearance was unlucky to go dead, giving Quins one final opportunity to score from a scrum. Dombrandt grabbed his hat-trick try to deny Northampton a losing bonus point; next up for Saints is a home clash against second-placed Saracens on Sunday afternoon.