How to explain this one? Northampton, who for the vast majority of this Sunday afternoon in the sunshine could not stop turning the ball over, somehow came within a whisker of snatching an unlikely win.
Conditions and both sides’ appetite to move the ball about meant the ingredients were all in place for an avalanche of tries, but for so long only Harlequins played their part – scoring five times, with Cadan Murley’s acrobatic finish in the corner the pick of the bunch – while Northampton were just dreadful for long patches in attack, producing a catalogue of squandered chances until the end when late tries from George Furbank and Tom James made things interesting.
“We haven’t converted that pressure into points. We have to be better, we have to be more proficient. We had an opportunity at the end but we gave ourselves a mountain to climb, really,” said Phil Dowson, Northampton’s director of rugby.
These matches might not be fun for Tabai Matson’s heart, the Harlequins head coach joking afterwards that he might invest in a smartwatch to start monitoring his beats per minute. But Murley’s impressive try, by contrast, was pure enjoyment.
“What a finish,” Matson said. “He fended up a guy who was on the Australian tour [with England, Tommy Freeman] and then the awareness to score in the corner was exceptional. There are not many finishers like that in the league at the moment.” Murley, surely on England’s radar already, certainly boosted his case for selection.
Jack Musk struck first for Harlequins off a maul before Lennox Anyanwu’s good work in defence pressured Fraser Dingwall into forcing a loose pass before Anyanwu sprinted to the line from halfway.
Harlequins did not share Northampton’s attacking gremlins. A sweeping move from right to left gave Luke Northmore a two-on-one, and he glided inside the last defender to score on his 50th club appearance.
Northampton, seemingly chasing a record for knock-ons in the opposition’s half with spill after spill in contact, finally crashed over under the posts six minutes from the interval through captain Lewis Ludlam following Tom Collins’s 50:22 kick.
They might have quickly had another score had Rory Hutchinson not been bundled into touch by Tyrone Green, but that was more forgivable than the 11 handling errors Northampton conceded in the first half. Harlequins comfortably led 21-10 at the break.
Lukhan Salakaia-Loto’s yellow card for a high tackle on Will Evans did not help Northampton’s comeback hopes, with Harlequins securing the try bonus point through Musk’s second try off the maul.
Freeman’s score out wide gave Northampton a glimmer of hope yet they continued to squander chances; Alex Coles’s offload a metre out going forward rather than finding a team-mate and a double movement from Ludlam ruled out another score.
Northampton were then caught napping after a turnover and duly punished.
Danny Care’s quick thinking with a tapped penalty set Harlequins away, combining with Marchant to set up a run down the touchline for Murley, whose diving finish after beating Coles, Freeman was superb for his fifth try of the season.
Finally, Northampton began to click. Tries came from Furbank and James, meaning that with five minutes left they suddenly had two bonus points in the bag and, at 35-29, they were eyeing the win.
They piled on the pressure after the clock went red until the ball escaped from a ruck and Marcus Smith dispatched it into the stands, wrapping up a win which Harlequins always seemed destined to secure until those nervy final moments.
Scoring sequence: 5-0 Musk try, 7-0 Smith con, 12-0 Anyanwu try, 14-0 Smith con, 14-3 Biggar pen, 19-3 Northmore try, 21-3 Smith con, 21-8 Ludlam try, 21-10 Biggar con, 26-10 Musk try, 28-10 Smith con, 28-15 Freeman try, 33-15 Murley try, 35-15 Smith con, 35-20 Furbank try, 35-22 Biggar con, 35-27 James try, 35-29 Biggar con.
Harlequins: T Green; J Marchant, L Northmore (N David 60), L Anyanwu, C Murley; M Smith, D Care (L Gjaltema 66); J Marler (c, S Garcia Botta 74), J Musk (S Riley 60), W Louw (S Kerrod 58), D Lamb, I Herbst (G Hammond 66), J Kenningham, W Evans, A White (M Jurevicius 66).
Not used: T Allan.
Northampton Saints: G Furbank; T Freeman, F Dingwall, R Hutchinson (M Proctor 54), T Collins (O Sleightholme 54); D Biggar, A Mitchell (T James 68); E Iyogun, S Matavesi (M Haywood 66), A Petch (P Hill 58), L Salakaia-Loto, A Coles, A Scott-Young (A Moon 43), Ludlam (c, S Graham 66), J Augustus.
Not used: O Heffernan.
Yellow card: Salakaia-Loto 42.
Referee: T Foley.