Gallagher Premiership Round 2: Northampton v Harlequins

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Gallagher Premiership Round 2
NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 07: James Lang of Harlequins celebrates after scoring a try during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby match between Northampton Saints and Harlequins at Franklin's Gardens on September 7, 2018 in Northampton, United Kingdom. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

In the opening match of the Gallagher Premiership Round 2 fixtures, the Northampton Saints hosted Harlequins.

The visitors had just come away with an emphatic victory over Sale Sharks, and were looking to repeat their success from the last game. Northampton had a disappointing first fixture but their record at Franklin’s Gardens is formidable, and was sure to give new head coach Chris Boyd hope for this important fixture.

First Half Highlights

Harlequins experienced some early panic after a perfectly placed box kick by Danny Care was tapped hack and gathered by Ahsee Tuala who offloaded to Tom Collins. The Tigers’ winger seemed to have beaten everyone to the line but incredibly Marcus Smith managed to track back and tackle Collins into touch. A definite try saving tackle.

Smith was again called into action when Tuala broke through from gathering a restart. He danced through Quins’ defence with ease and could only be stopped when the young fly half brought him down.

Tuala was later involved in an excellent move. He and Ken Pisi linked up and crossed while on the attack leaving the Quins defence to scramble back. The Saints fullback cut a great line, all eyes following him to the corner, but before any defenders could reach him he threw a clever inside pass to his partner on the wing. Pisi cut his own line, 90 degrees to Tuala, temporarily baffling the Harlequins defence. Despite not leading to a try, the subsequent phases did result in referee Tom Foley awarding the attacking team a penalty.

A major flaw of Northampton’s first half performance however was their eagerness to score tries while in a good position. With a penalty in front of the posts on two occasions (this being one of them) Northampton took the option to kick for the corner. This cost them an almost guaranteed six points. They were denied a score both times by a lineout steal and turnover.

These wasted opportunities were the downfall of the Saints, commented on by Dan Biggar in a post match interview where he stated that his side should have been further ahead at half time. Despite this fact, Northampton went into the break leading 9-3.

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Second Half ends in frenetic attack from Quins

Featuring more endeavour, the second half eventually produced three well worked tries. The first of these came when Harlequins were given a penalty advantage and as he so often does, scrum half Danny Care took his opportunity by diving over the ruck from close range to score. This try reduced the Quins deficit to only only points after Marcus Smith added the conversion. Previously Biggar had added a 4th penalty to extend Northampton’s lead but their lapse in concentration had enabled their visitors the chance at a comeback.

Unfortunately for Harlequins though their game followed a theme of scoring and conceding immediately after. Directly from the Northampton restart Quins gave away a penalty for holding on and returning captain Dylan Hartley recollected his lineout throw to dot down after a Saints maul.

Biggar and Smith then traded penalties before Harlequins replacement James Lang took the game into his own hands. His strength – having just come onto the field – proved too much for the Saints fly half. Biggar’s weak tackle slipped off Lang (see main photo), who sprinted to the line to score. He missed the subsequent conversation but Quins now had nine minutes to bridge the four point gap.

This possibility seemed bleak however as handling errors cost Quins vital field position. Northampton were then awarded a penalty which Biggar kicked successfully to take the chance of a win away from their challengers. No more scoring occurred from this point. Harlequins attempted a final minute attack and did manage to get extremely close to securing a draw. However, Saints turned the ball over at a crucial time when the clock hit the red.

They had survived the frenetic attempts from the visitors, achieved the valuable victory, and have gotten their season ‘off the mark’ 25-18.

The Lowdown

By no means were Northampton comprehensively better than Quins. Both sides showed good intent and a collective desire to score good tries. It was mainly handling errors though that compromised the two teams and prevented a more flowing game, Northampton recording nine in the first half alone.

Man of the Match David Ribbans commented also on the mistakes made. Like Dan Biggar he said that ‘he felt his side should have recorded more points in the first forty minutes’. Captain Dylan Hartley agreed (see below) and it was this fact; that potentially gave Harlequins the incentive and belief, to challenge right up until the end.

As former England scrum half Austin Healey noted, for the Saints ‘there’s a lot to learn from’ following this fixture. This applies to Harlequins too.

What went wrong? Both teams need for Confidence

From a purely critical stance, the composure of players in the most basic areas of rugby need improvement. Harlequins in particular did not seem to echo their confidence shown in the first round. Naturally this will no doubt be tackled by both teams management, in preparation for next Saturday’s fixtures when Harlequins host Bath and Northampton welcome Saracens.

Nonetheless there are also positives to take away though too.

Harlequins Hero – Marcus Smith

By far, Quins standout player, was their 19 year old fly half who performed excellently. Continuing his fine form from last week he produced a perfect record off the tee against the Saints. But for once, it wasn’t his control or attacking competency that made him shine.

Having recently been criticised for poor challenges and a lack of defensive strength and structure, Smith showed why he’s a multi-purpose number 10. Were it not for his tracking back in defence, Northampton would have likely ran away with the game early on. Smith was definitively the main contributor in preventing two scores, in both demonstrating good pace and awareness.

Saints’ Superstars – Dan Biggar

Redeeming himself from an abnormally poor performance in the first week of the Gallagher Premiership, Biggar this time reminded us why he’s Wales’ number one.

Having made fundamental errors on restarts against Gloucester and even missing several simple kicks, he thankfully stepped up for his new home supporters. What was most commendable was his sublime control and commitment. As we have seen in a Welsh jersey may times before, Biggar excelled against Quins at chasing and regathering his own kicks to set up a great attacking position. This was a feature of his game that was most noticeable on the field as it provides his side with an opportunistic platform from which they could build a structured attack.

Ahsee Tuala – Player of the Day

Arguably a second Man of the Match, Ahsee Tuala was the most impressive player on the field. His footwork and offloading skills were central in creating the Saints best chances. This would have been impacted on the scoreboard, were it not for the last ditch tackles from Quins stopping the tries he so nearly created.

Tuala was not just self focused either, nor was he arrogant in the abilities he demonstrated. Many of Tuala’s plays were complimentary to his teammates, namely his set piece move with Ken Pisi. This was perfectly executed and well timed – somewhat unlucky not to have payed off. It is also impossible not to think how this type of play would fare against a team less resolute in defence than Harlequins.

In his current form Tuala certainly looks to be one of the potential high performers if this season. Only time will validate this observation, but look forward to watching this player throughout the 2018/19 Gallagher Premiership.

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In week three, Northampton face up against last season’s champions, Saracens, again in the comfort of Franklin’s Gardens. While Harlequins invite Bath to the Twickenham Stoop for an important game for each team.

Follow Last Word on Rugby throughout the 2018/19 Gallagher Premiership, for match results and analysis.

 

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