Toppling the Table Toppers: A Turning Point for Quins

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Last Word On Rugby, by Kate Cole.

On Saturday, a capacity crowd piled into the Twickenham Stoop to watch Harlequins take on defending Premiership and European Champions, Saracens. But for once, it wasn’t the home contingent in high spirits. Instead, there was a notable sense of anxiety amongst Quins fans, who feared a large defeat at the hands of their unbeaten opponents.

Toppling the Table Toppers: A Turning Point for Quins

It hadn’t been a promising start to the season. Former fan-favourite Conor O’Shea leaving the club at the end of last year, to play International rugby for Italy. The recently appointed; and highly criticized Director of Rugby John Kingston, had a lot to prove.

A shaky start at Twickenham against the newly promoted Bristol did little to settle the nerves. Whilst two away defeats to Sale and Exeter left Quins two off the bottom of the table. Upcoming fixtures against a strong Saracens and Wasps outfits to come, would be testing. Losses in these next two weeks might have seen relegation fears start to brew amongst fans–who haven’t seen the second tier of English rugby since 2006.

With morale down and hopes low, an early interception try from Tim Visser did little to settle the nerves. Even when Quins went in at the break 17-0 to the good, the home fans were far from comfortable. An impressive defensive effort in the last ten minutes of the first half soon seemed to be in vain, when a try immediately after the break from Richard Wigglesworth, looked a sure sign of a Saracens resurgence.

But somehow, Quins held onto the lead, and stopped the Saracens onslaught with an quality defensive performance, led by the pack.

As they had done back in January, Harlequins served up Saracens’ first defeat of the season. A performance which surprised even the most loyal of fans. It shocked Maro Itoje too – the 21 year old England rugby sensation – whose streak of thirty one victories for club and country was finally broken.

Missing Players and Injury Woes

Admittedly, Saracens were not at their Champions Cup winning best. With Owen Farrell and George Kruis both missing Saturday’s loss, and Chris Ashton facing a suspension, there were certainly gaps in the away lineup. Alex Lozoswki was also on poor form, delivering the loose pass which led to the Tim Visser interception try. Missing two penalties that could have clawed Saracens back into the game, also put pressure on his team mates.

But then again, neither were Quins at their best. Back row Jack Clifford is out for at least ten weeks to have surgery on an ankle injury. That left youngster James Chisholm starting at number eight for the home side. Squaring up against England star Billy Vunipola would never be an easy task, but Chisholm played his part. A key cog in a side who defended brilliantly and did not let the big man intimidate him.

Injury also prevented Nick Evans from starting, which gave an impressive Tim Swiel the nod. As well, Mike Brown was noticeably rusty, having just returned from injury himself. 23 year old Charlie Walker was drafted in on Saturday morning, after Marland Yarde was ruled out due to a throat infection. But (thankfully) he rewarded the fans with a first half try.

The injuries continued to mount up on the pitch. (1) Joe Marler substituted in the first minute for concussion. (2) Danny Care taken off with a rib injury shortly after the break. It was left to the replacements to deliver, and it was the youngsters who shone for Quins. George Merrick was a stand out performer, outclassing Itoje in a performance worthy of an England nod. Chisholm’s introduction to the starting shirt was indicative of a man who had done his research.

In fact, the entire defensive lineup seemed to predict Saracens’ playbook. ‘Danger man’ Vunipola was closed off at every opportunity, and Saracens given little chance to look dangerous.

Impact on Harlequins’ Season

Harlequins can take a lot of confidence out of Saturday’s win. It was easily their best performance of the season to date–perhaps even since the historic win against Saracens in January. A sure reminder of what they can achieve when everything comes together. It will also help to silence critics, who have attacked Kingston’s leadership of the squad in recent weeks. And is a much needed reassurance that it wasn’t just O’Shea who could produce the big wins.

But, it’s not just the pride of beating Saracens that will benefit Quins. A loss yesterday would have seen them one off the bottom of the Premiership table, and 14 points off table toppers Wasps–in just four games.

Instead, four competition points banked mean they sit in eighth, only a point out the top six spot. Safe from the relegation zone.

With a win now taken from both home games, yesterday’s result could be a landmark point in a season which could easily have taken a turn for the worse.

The trip to the Ricoh next weekend to play Wasps, will not be easy for Quins. The table toppers are four-wins-from-four and are looking strong, with their bolstered squad for the new season. But, under the new leadership, Quins first need to focus on securing wins at home before they aim for ambitious away victories.

And that they have done, at one of the hardest callings, toppling Saracens for the second time this year.

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