Northampton held strong despite a late Harlequins surge to win 25-18 at Franklin’s Gardens.
For two sides who miserably underperformed last season, it was an important encounter for a Northampton team who were reeling from a disappointing defeat in Gloucester last week.
In the midst of an injury crisis which has seen England stars Mike Brown, Kyle Sinckler and Joe Marler all crocked – as well as 12 other first-team players – Paul Gustard opted to test the fruits of his well-praised academy. Archie White and Ben Glynn both started, as well as Aaron Morris, who impressed at full-back in his side’s victory over Sale last week.
But it was last year’s star product who caught the eye in the early stages, as Marcus Smith had to use his teenage pace to rescue Harlequins from what would have been a major early setback after Tom Collins broke the line inside the opening minute.
Smith was called into action only a minute later after Northampton’s backline created space far too easily, and the young fly-half had to force Piers Francis into touch.
The two early try-line opportunities were the best an error-strewn first half had to offer, as Dan Biggar and Marcus Smith traded penalties.
While Gustard was slightly disappointed with his side’s defensive performance last week, their attacking game was letting them down this time. In 40 first-half carries, Harlequins made only 84 metres.
Northampton, on the other hand, were threatening with ball in hand, often breaking the line and finding an offload. The only thing missing was a try, which looked like it had arrived early in the second half until the TMO ruled that Cobus Reinach was unsuccessful in his scoring attempt.
Despite his two try-saving tackles, Marcus Smith was disappointing as he looked reluctant to create opportunities with his star-studded backline, instead relying on Danny Care for attacking openings.
And it was Care who scored the first try of the game when he dotted down after a succession of pick-and-goes during Harlequins’ first visit to the 22.
But Care’s team were struggling to gain any kind of grip on the game, and as soon as they had reduced Northampton’s lead to two, Dylan Hartley was capitalising on Harlequins’ indiscipline, scoring from the back of a maul.
It was some kind of revival for Hartley in his first game at Franklin’s Gardens for eight months. The England captain has found himself behind James Fish, a Northampton academy product, in the pecking order, but took his opportunity off the bench well in imposing his authority on an edgy game.
Chris Boyd was frustrated by the 21 penalties conceded by his team last week, but it was a much improved disciplinary performance from a Saints side who will only improve as they adapt to Boyd’s methods.
For all their attacking dominance, Northampton still faced a nervy final ten minutes after James Lang – on for Marcus Smith – scythed through the defensive line to set up a grand finale.
Despite a Harry Mallinder penalty which gave Northampton a seven-point cushion with only two minutes remaining, Harlequins had one last opportunity to snatch a draw at the death.
But Northampton held strong, with Jamie Gibson securing the crucial turnover when the clock was long dead.