Saracens were defeated 29-23 in a closely fought Aviva Premiership London derby away to Harlequins at The Stoop.
For the first time in the Aviva Premiership this season Saracens have tasted defeat, and for Harlequins, it was just their second win in fifteen meetings between the two London sides.
In a highly charged contest a late Ben Botica penalty and a try from Harlequins lock James Horwill snatched a late win for Conor O’Shea’s side, with other scores coming from hooker Rob Buchanan and young back rower, Jack Clifford.
Saracens tries came from Neil de Kock and Billy Vunipola, with outside half Owen Farrell kicking 13-points. The turning point of the game came in the 66th minute when replacement loose head Rhys Gill was red carded for a dangerous tackle on Harlequins centre, George Lowe. Replacement Ben Botica eased the Stoop’s nerves with a 37-metre penalty in the driving rain before Horwill crossed for a try on 80 minutes.
This game was one that wasn’t ever far from controversy. There were red and yellow cards, big hits and plenty of talking points to chew over in an entertaining Premiership game in south west London.
The first half was bruising spectacle. Both sides were in an uncompromising mood in the opening exchanges with a series of bone crunching tackles entertaining the packed out crowd. One hit that was questionable was one from Harlequins’ lock James Horwill on his opposite number, George Kruis. The former Australian skipper went into a breakdown with a swinging arm and didn’t miss the back of Kruis’ head. The Sarries lock forward was stretchered off, and was replaced by Maro Itoje. Horwill was yellow carded, and was lucky that Referee Craig Maxwell-Keys didn’t produce a red one.
The man who replaced Kruis, Maro Itoje, was superb throughout the contest. He was menacing at the lineout, aggressive in his carries and was a man possessed in his defensive work.
It was up front where Saracens would inflict some early damage on Harlequins. With their set-piece picking up from where it left off a week earlier against Leicester Tigers, forcing their opponents into conceding a plethora of scrum penalties. After Horwill’s swinging arm penalty, Harlequins were penalised on six occasions at the scrum. Despite the continuing infringements, Mr Maxwell-Keys refused to produce a card for the Quins front row, with Joe Marler in particular not enjoying his contest against the in-form Sarries tight head, Petrus Du Plessis.
Sarries remained patient, and their persistence paid dividends when Neil de Kock dived on the ball at the base of another strong Saracens scrum to score the first try of the game. Owen Farrell converted to give the visitors a 7-0 lead.
The opening quarter was one way traffic. Sarries set-piece dominance continued but it was the home side who scored next. A well-worked line-out move released Quins skipper Danny Care through the heart of the Saracens line-out, he raced away and passed to Rob Buchanan who dived over in the corner. Evans couldn’t convert.
Again the game continued its physical nature. Will Fraser (another Saracens player who impressed in defeat) folded Quins centre Jamie Roberts in half with a superb tackle, and his back row mates Billy Vunipola and Jackson Wray also were in the thick of the action.
Billy Vunipola then crossed for Saracens second try of the afternoon. In his 50th appearance for the club the England man powered over to score in the 26th minute on the back of another dominant Sarries scrum. Farrell once again, converted.
By this time Quins were growing into the contest. Nick Evans kept the Stoop scoreboard ticking over with a penalty before Jack Clifford scored right before half time. Former All Black Evans converted to give his side a 15-14 lead at the break.
Saracens quickly regained the lead in the second half, when Owen Farrell sent over 44th minute penalty after Harlequins flanker Luke Wallace was off his feet at the breakdown. Ten minutes later Farrell added another three points as Sarries lead 20-15 going into the final quarter of the game.
Evans left the fray on the hour mark for Ben Botica, and his replacement was soon on the score board when he sent over a penalty after Saracens were penalised at the breakdown.
Farrell responded with another penalty before replacement prop Rhys Gill received his marching orders for a clumsy tackle that Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall concede post game, deserved a red card.
Down to 14-men Saracens were up against it. They defended manfully but ill-discipline continued to creep in at the breakdown offering Harlequins opportunities to post points.
Botica kicked both penalties edging his side in front by a solitary point. Sarries rallied and had a great opportunity to snatch a win late on when they set up for a last gasp drop goal with both Charlie Hodgson and Owen Farrell set in the pocket with just 90 seconds left on the clock. Unfortunately for Saracens the ball squirmed out of a breakdown and was gleefully scooped up by Harlequins before Jack Clifford raced 60 metres to safety. Sarries scrambled well but conceded a penalty in their desperate attempt to regain possession. Harlequins kicked for the corner and from the lineout, Horwill crashed over to score. Botica missed the conversion which meant Saracens recorded a losing bonus point.
15 Alex Goode;14 Chris Ashton;13 Marcelo Bosch;12 Duncan Taylor; 11 Mike Ellery;10 Owen Farrell;9 Neil de Kock;1 Mako Vunipola; 2 Jamie George ©;3 Petrus Du Plessis;4 Jim Hamilton;5 George Kruis; 6 Jackson Wray;7 Will Fraser;8 Billy Vunipola.
Replacements: 16 Jared Saunders;17 Rhys Gill;18 Titi Lamositele;19 Maro Itoje; 20 Jacques Burger;21 Richard Wigglesworth;22 Charlie Hodgson; 23 Nick Tompkins.
Tries: De Kock (10); B. Vunipola (26).
Cons: Farrell X 2
Penalties: Farrell X 3
Red card: Gill (65).
15. Mike Brown;14. Marland Yarde;13. George Lowe;12. Jamie Roberts; 11. Ross Chisholm;10. Nick Evans9. Danny Care (C);1.Joe Marler; 2. Rob Buchanan;3. Adam Jones;4. James Horwill;5. Charlie Matthews; 6. Chris Robshaw;7. Luke Wallace;8. Jack Clifford.
Replacements: 16. Dave Ward;17. Seb Adeniran-Olule;18.Joe Gray;19. George Merrick; 20.Harry Sloan;21. Karl Dickson;22. Ben Botica;23. Charlie Walker.
Replacements used Ward for Buchanan(62); Botica for Evans(53).
Tries Buchanan (21);Clifford(39); Horwill(80).
Penalties: Evans, Botica X 3
Yellow card: Horwill (2).