Musk double leads Harlequins to victory despite Northampton rally
There was never much chance of a dull, try-less slugging match between two sides fully committed to playing their rugby on the front foot. Sure enough the result was another wildly fluctuating try-fest, with Harlequins surviving a concerted final quarter comeback from a Northampton team who registered four tries but could conceivably have scored twice as many.
Quins, who have now scored 20 tries in their four league games so far, had been leading 35-15 with just 12 minutes left with the hooker Jack Musk contributing two tries and the centre Luke Northmore impressing once again. Last-quarter tries from George Furbank and Tom James, however, propelled the Saints right back into the game and only a desperate late turnover saved the hosts from last-gasp embarrassment.
It made for a nine-try thriller on a lovely sunny Sunday afternoon but a few Saints players will not be in any huge rush to check out the highlights. Alex Coles, Alex Mitchell, Rory Hutchinson and Lewis Ludlam could all have scored or set up vital tries for the visitors which, in the final analysis, proved crucial.
Even so, having lost out in the final seconds in Exeter the previous weekend, it would have been mighty tough for Quins to take had they been pipped again. “At times you wonder: ‘Why am I in this industry?’” admitted their head coach Tabai Matson. “I’ve actually thought of getting an Apple watch to see what my heart rate is. It’s a pretty brutal industry and winning and losing has an impact on you as a coach. But this club is adamant that playing an exciting game of football can be successful. It’s fantastic to coach and the players love the challenge of moving the ball.”
At least Matson can now sleep easier this week. It is usually Quins who specialise in unlikely comebacks but here they were 14-0 up inside seven minutes, courtesy of tries by Musk and Lennox Anyanwu and Northampton’s early inability to hang on to the ball. Three or four times in the first half alone the Saints made it into the home 22 only to spill possession when opportunity knocked, not least when Mitchell delayed too long with options outside him.
Quins needed no second invitation. They also have one of the form backs in the competition in Northmore and the uncapped centre showed up well again on his 50th club appearance as he kept the defence guessing with the ball in both hands before carving through to score his side’s third try.
A penalty from Dan Biggar and a close-range try from Ludlam did drag Saints back into the contest but their profligacy continued to cost them. Most glaring was Hutchinson’s decision to ignore the man outside him on the left and go for glory, only for the Scotland international to be bundled into touch by Archie White and Tyrone Green.
It left Saints needing to overcome a 21-10 half-time deficit, a task made no easier when their big lock Lukhan Salakaia-Loto was shown a yellow card following a collision with Will Evans. The referee Tom Foley had initially decided no card was necessary, only to be alerted to the existence of a further video angle.
Northampton have now been shown six yellow cards in just four games, making them the worst early offenders in the league, and paid the price again here when Musk was driven over for his second try eight minutes into the second half. They were suitably relieved, then, when slick passing put the increasingly prolific Tommy Freeman over, the eighth league game in a row in which he has scored a try.
Things would have become even more interesting had Coles, just a few metres short, not allowed the ball to slip from his grasp or Ludlam not had a close-range ‘try’ ruled out by the eagle-eyed TMO for a double movement. The latter moment effectively led to a 14-point swing with Quins surging back upfield, taking a quick tap and putting the acrobatic Cadan Murley over in the left corner. Saints, to their credit, battled back well but, as their director of rugby Phil Dowson acknowledged, their sluggish start had already left them with “a mountain to climb”.
Quins, meanwhile, were also happy to attract a full house, with their forthcoming home games against London Irish and Leicester already sold out as well. Given the rival sporting attractions on offer it would strongly suggest a healthy market does indeed exist for well-marketed, family-friendly club rugby. Entertaining games like this one do no harm, either.