Mighty Quins keep title dreams alive
May 12, 2012
Harlequins skipper Chris Robshaw celebrates his side's semi-final victory © Getty Images
It was hardly a classic but Quins will not care. They will contest the Premiership title for first time later this month after digging deep to deny a Saints side that had looked poised to upset their much-fancied hosts only to succumb in the dying moments of a largely cagey affair.
Those seeking flair on a sunny afternoon in south west London may have been better off across the road at the London Sevens at Twickenham but not even the world's best in the shortened version of the game and an estimated 60,000 crowd could have conjured the intensity on show at The Stoop.
Two sides that appeared more concerned with not losing the game rather than winning it traded penalties in a first half violently punctuated by some bone-crunching defensive work from the likes of Quins' Joe Marler and Saints' James Downey - who along with scrum-half Lee Dickson tried harder than any to upset the odds.
Under immense pressure having led the Premiership table for the majority of the season, Quins struggled to find their rhythm and they were staring at a rather bleak end to a campaign that has promised so much. Ryan Lamb's boot proved a significant thorn in Quins' side for much of the game but it was a sensational try that had them reeling. Ben Foden, Vasily Artemyev, George Pisi, Downey and Lee Dickson combined for the attacking highlight of the game. A forward pass from Artemyev to Pisi was not spotted by the officials - and while justice was eventually done, such high-profile errors do the game no favours.
It was left to the Quins pack to rescue a season that teetered on the brink with the likes of Marler, blindside Mo Fa'asavalu and openside Chris Robshaw - fresh from being named the Premiership's Player of the Year - spearheading a second half revival that eventually saw them triumph in a real arm-wrestle.
But they will be the first to point to the team effort that was best encapsulated by Marler's all-important score as the clock ran down. The Quins scrum may have initially turned the tide but it was a solid lineout and then a perfectly co-ordinated drive, with the likes of fly-half Nick Evans lending their weight to the cause, finally breaking Saints' resilience and sparking delight among a nerve-shredded crowd. The positioning and direction of the drive was crucial and allowed Evans to set the seal on an ugly win - but arguably the most important in the club's history.
It was a superb effort from a Saints side light of such heavyweight names as Courtney Lawes, Dylan Hartley, Calum Clark, Tom Wood and Chris Ashton but ultimately they suffered yet more big match heartache following seemingly endless semi-final agony and more notably a Heineken Cup defeat last season.
At half-time it looked so easy. They were in the driving seat and within sight of their first final appearance. But outmuscled and starved of possession and territory in the second period their brave challenge finally faltered. A bloodied Downey screaming at his team-mates as he was forced to leave the field in the closing moments suggested he knew one last effort was required. Sadly, in his absence they were unable to withstand a Quins side not quite ready to wrap up their season.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.