Saracens smash old rivals Harlequins in front of Wembley crowd

Hugh Godwin
The Independent
Michael Rhodes crosses the line to score Saracens' third try of the day: Getty
Michael Rhodes crosses the line to score Saracens' third try of the day: Getty

Saracens may still be in third place in the Premiership table, just in behind Wasps and Exeter Chiefs but the reigning league and European champions are in anything but bronze-medal form.

In the three matches since their battalion of international players returned from Six Nations Championship commitments, the double title-holders have blown away Bath, Glasgow and now their great London rivals Harlequins with a potent mix of iron defence and brilliantly penetrative attack.

If anything negative can be laid at Saracens' door it is an occasional wasting of opportunities to bag even more tries, and those who are clamouring for the prolific scorer Chris Ashton to tour with the British & Irish Lions this summer must acknowledge a fresh example here of the wing being easily brushed off when it comes to one-on-one challenges with his opposite number – in this case, Marland Yarde, who put in a very decent shift in a losing team.

Harlequins were looking for their first league double over Saracens since the 2008-9 season, having been the only team to beat Saracens twice in the calendar year of 2016.

A line judge clears some litter (Getty)
A line judge clears some litter (Getty)

Quins' main target is a top-six finish for automatic European Champions Cup qualification, although seventh will be good enough for a play-off, unless Gloucester take that by winning the Challenge Cup.

So the visiting side would have taken any points going in the knowledge they face a tough run-in with matches against Exeter and Wasps at home and positional rivals Northampton away on the last day of the regular season in May.

Instead Harlequins ended up with nothing as the three assistant coaches of the British & Irish Lions in attendance – Graham Rowntree, who works for Quins, plus the former Saracens employees Steve Borthwick and Andy Farrell - saw Danny Care’s men huff and puff for 74 minutes before they achieved a solitary breach of the Saracens goalline, with a line-out move finished by Australian second row James Horwill.

Farrell’s son Owen, at fly-half, kicked beautifully from the tee to accumulate 20 points for Saracens to go with a try-scoring bonus completed by Alex Goode two minutes from the end.

Quins’ No.10 Nick Evans kicked three penalty goals in the first half, but two tries at the other end by Ashton and hooker Schalk Brits helped Saracens into a deserved lead at the interval, despite their opponents having more of the ball.

Saracens blew away their great London rivals (Getty)
Saracens blew away their great London rivals (Getty)

Ashton’s red-hot streak of scoring helped Saracens eliminate Glasgow in last Sunday’s European quarter-final a few miles up the road at Allianz Park, and it showed again as he roared onto Goode’s chip kick, brushing Quins’ England full-back Mike Brown aside as he went.

That was in the 17th minute, as Quins regretted flying up in defence and allowing Brad Barritt a lovely offload to Goode out of a tackle.

Seven minutes later, Saracens were in again, this time punishing their capital neighbours from a close-range set-piece, as Brits provided the barrelling finish after a scrum.

A couple of close-run things in which Ashton and his fellow wing Sean Maitland might have added tries were let-offs for Harlequins, who also saw their England back-rower Jack Clifford unable to return from an early head injury assessment, while Sarries lost lock Jim Hamilton to what looked like a back strain.

With the European semi-final against Munster in Dublin a fortnight from today, this is not the time to start picking up injuries.

Horwill goes over for Harlequins' solitary try (Getty)
Horwill goes over for Harlequins' solitary try (Getty)

England prop and likely Lions tourist Mako Vunipola, who had heavy strapping on his left leg, also came off a few minutes into the second half, although it may have been a precautionary measure.

A penalty by Farrell made the scoreline 17-9 in the 35th minute, and although Maro Itoje was pinged by referee Ian Tempest a couple of times at the breakdown, Saracens’ famed defence snuffed out any hope Evans had of firing off a dropped goal just before the half-time whistle.

Three penalties by Farrell to one for Evans had Saracens 26-12 ahead going into the last 10 minutes, despite a cute hitch-kick and run by Yarde that left Farrell and Ashton trailing in one attack.

Either side of Horwill’s try – a good move as Alofa Alofa probed against the grain of an attack from a Quins line-out – there was a galloping finish by the impressively-versatile Michael Rhodes, after Itoje had nicked a line-out, and a wealth of space exploited by Farrell and Rhodes to send an exultant Goode clear for the bonus.

Saracens: A Goode; C Ashton (N Tompkins 65), D Taylor, B Barritt (capt; rep A Lozowski 72nd min-79), S Maitland (M Flanagan 74); O Farrell, B Spencer (R Wigglesworth 51); M Vunipola (T Lamositele 46), S Brits (J George 54), V Koch (P du Plessis 59), M Itoje, J Hamilton (J Conlon 23), M Rhodes (Barritt 79), J Wray, B Vunipola.

Tries: Ashton, Brits, Rhodes, Goode
Conversions: Farrell 4
Penalties: Farrell 4

Harlequins: M Brown; M Yarde, J Marchant, J Roberts, T Visser (A Alofa 65); N Evans (T Swiel 73), D Care (capt; C Mulchrone 73); J Marler (M Lambert 65), R Buchanan (J Gray 56), W Collier (K Sinckler 56), G Merrick (C Matthews 56), J Horwill, C Robshaw, J Clifford (D Ward 4), M Luamanu.

Try: Horwill
Conversion: Swiel
Penalties: Evans 4

Referee: I Tempest (RFU)

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