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Saints 29 – 49 Harlequins: Northampton beaten on Gardens return

Northampton Saints were on the wrong end of high-scoring thriller in their Gallagher Premiership home opener, going down 29-49 to Harlequins at Franklin’s Gardens.

A flurry of quick tries saw Quins build a 20-point lead early in the second half, only for Lewis Ludlam and Rory Hutchinson to drag Saints back into the contest heading into the final quarter.

But the visitors stalled the comeback with two late scores, meaning the men in Black, Green and Gold had to settle for a try bonus point to show for their afternoon’s work.

In a free-flowing first half, tries from Ludlam and Nick Isiekwe kept Saints within six points of their visitors, who had built their lead through the boot of Marcus Smith and two well-worked tries of their own.

It was Quins who struck first, taking advantage of an overlap on halfway that allowed Luke Northmore to break. A slipped tackle gave him a one-on-one inside the 22, leaving the supporting Danny Care a simple run under the posts once the pass came.

The response from Saints was perfect. The first time the men in Green, Black and Gold held onto the ball for an extended period of time, James Grayson slipped Api Ratuniyarawa through a gap with a beautiful tip-on pass. The Fijian didn’t have the pace to beat Mike Brown and Care on the cover, but Ludlam was on hand to gather the offload and dive over – Grayson levelled the scores with his conversion.

Quins thought they had a second after more brilliant handling in the wide channels allowed Care to break before feeding Wilco Louw on the inside, but just as Smith was lining up the conversion, TMO Rowan Kitt spotted a forward pass in the build-up.

From the following scrum though, a failure to secure possession led to any easy penalty in front of the posts for Smith.

The visitors did eventually get their second try after even more good interplay in the wide channels; Glen Young and Nathan Earle combined well before the latter linked up with Care, taking the return pass from his scrum-half to score in the corner.

Almost immediately after the kick off, a knock-on and subsequent offside allowed Grayson to narrow the deficit with a shot in front of the posts.

Two Marcus Smith penalties stretched out Quins’ lead, but a short-range score from Nick Isiekwe reduced the deficit to six with the last play of the half. After a 13-man maul was held up just short of the line, the big back row powered over a few phases later to send Saints into the sheds with the momentum despite being 23-17 behind.

The visitors started the second half aggressively, turning down a shot in front of the posts to instead tap and go. The decision proved to be a good one as Care drew a number of defenders with a snipe, before picking out Brown on a short line – his angled run saw him power through and dot down under the posts.

The bonus point score came moments later; Smith’s pin-point cross-kick took a kind bounce into the arms of Alex Dombrandt out wide, leaving the skipper with plenty of space to step inside the cover and score. Smith’s conversion all-of-a-sudden had ‘Quins into a 20-point advantage.

With 20 minutes still on the clock, Saints got the lifeline they needed. A clever lineout move inside the 22 nearly sent Alex Coles crashing over the line, giving Saints dangerous front-foot ball. A deliberate knock from Smith led to loose ball once play was spread wide, but Harry Mallinder recovered possession under the advantage to send Rory Hutchinson over from close range.

Minutes later the game was well and truly back on as Hutchinson’s superb grubber into the corner piled the pressure on the Londoners’ hooker, Joe Gray, who promptly missed his jumper at the lineout.

Ludlam gathered at the back, stepping back inside to power his way through four would-be tacklers to secure the bonus-point score.

However, the conversion attempt from Mallinder slid wide and after the ball went loose in midfield shortly after, Dombrandt linked up with Scott Steele for the replacement to strike the killer blow. A late breakaway score from Smith – off the back of an Andre Esterhuizen offload – added some gloss to the scoreline.

Chris Boyd and his charges now turn their attentions to next Friday’s trip to Ashton Gate to take on Bristol Bears.