In the end, both teams will have felt slightly disappointed, neither quite able to take control of this remarkable match, featuring seven tries, plenty of them spectacular. But we are quibbling. Harlequins ended up with a bonus point, Brett Herron claiming it with a breakaway try at the death. Having endured the unhappy departure of their director of rugby, Paul Gustard, a few weeks ago, they now find themselves in third, two points behind the champions, Exeter.
Northampton have endured their own torment this season but they remain in fifth. They will wonder how they failed to make their pressure tell in the second half – a dearth of fly-halves is not helping – but they contributed handsomely to a match that thrilled, as so many of them are doing these days. Their lack of control detracted from the last half-hour, but the match was never less than breathless – and for 50 minutes it really touched the heights.
The bewildering line of argument that rugby has somehow ground to a halt as a spectacle – an argument that, not coincidentally, is as old as this era of multiple televised matches – has looked even more ridiculous than usual this weekend. Whoever keeps peddling it cannot have been watching much Premiership rugby of late.
We can only be grateful there were not multiple matches televised in the amateur era that so many seem to want to return to, for the moaning about the spectacle back then would surely have been interminable. As it is, this match burst into life from the off, with four tries and 29 points scored within the first quarter of an hour.
Weather helps as well, of course. The sun was shining over south-west London and the air was brisk. So was the rugby. Quins were awarded a penalty from the kick-off, which Marcus Smith converted with barely a minute played. With barely five played, Northampton had replied with a lovely try from a lineout, Fraser Dingwall released in midfield to set up Tom Collins.
Two minutes later and Quins had replied. Rory Hutchinson, called up on the day, lost the ball in a tackle, Danny Care dinked it through and Tyrone Green finished, the South African finally getting a chance to show off his wares.
Three minutes later again and Quins were off once more. Joe Marchant pounced on a loose pass by George Furbank for Smith to combine with him and take play into the Saints 22, whence Stephan Lewies reached out of a tackle for the line. Sure enough, another three minutes later, Saints had replied, Dingwall again cutting the line to put over Tom James.
At that point, the scorers were allowed a little respite, before the scoring resumed in the 10 minutes to half-time. Mike Brown claimed his 61st try for Quins, picking a fine line from close range off Care’s pass, and Smith added a second penalty just before the break, for a 27-12 lead to the hosts at half-time.
What the game needed on the resumption was a Northampton score. If it could be spectacular, too, so much the better. The response satisfied on both counts. The Saints had set up position in Quins’ 22, when James Chisholm broke from his own 22 in a counter developed by Green. But his loose pass just outside the Saints’ 22 was pounced upon by Dingwall, and he fed Ollie Sleightholme. From 75 yards out, the wing was off. He chipped ahead and beat the field for a, well, spectacular score.
The visitors, though, remained more than a score adrift. A third Smith penalty before the hour left them 11 points short. Both sets of coaches would have been despairing as neither side could quite squeeze out the other. A spectator’s dream this game may have been, but coaches generally prefer something a little more considered.
Northampton needed to force the issue, though, and for all the wildness of the contest, they turned up the pressure in the final quarter, earning themselves a two-man advantage as the game approached the final 10 minutes. Jack Kenningham collapsed a driven lineout on his line and three minutes later Alex Dombrandt followed him for killing another attack.
Northampton have been making do of late without a recognised fly-half. How they could have done with a Dan Biggar, as they looked to make their pressure tell, but they missed penalties to touch and failed to capitalise on attacking set pieces. Instead, it was Quins, restored to a full complement by then, who claimed the game’s last try.