By Ali Stokes
Early season elation for Paul Gustard and his freshly recharged Harlequins side will have been abruptly stunted by last season's fellow strugglers Northampton.
Saints took their first victory under new Head Coach Chris Boyd in front of a home crowd this evening (Friday), as Harlequins managed against Sale the previous week, kick-starting their points tally for the season whilst also welcoming a debut for 77-times-capped England backrow James Haskell and a long-awaited return to fitness for skipper Dylan Hartley.
In a first 40 minutes that could have been mistaken for a delayed tribute to comedian Barry Chuckle, the number of 'to me, to you' style turnovers from both sides stunted any chances of first-half tries.
With ten handling errors from Northampton and nine turnovers won for Harlequins, Chris Boyd's home side may have felt fortunate to head into the sheds at half-time with a 9-3 lead, which could easily have been 12-3 had Dan Biggar's second penalty attempt not pinged off the uprights.
Northampton's saving grace came in the form of a handful of scintillating breaks from Tom Collins and Ahsee Tuala and late-acquired ascendancy at the scrum after early period that saw All Black tighthead Ben Franks schooled by Harlequins' loosehead Mark Lambert - who was promoted to the starting lineup last minute after England and Lions man Joe Marler failed to recover from a dead leg .
A handful of impressive momentum-killing tackles from Quins' England hopefuls Marcus Smith (19, fly-half) and Joe Marchant (22, centre) saved Harlequins from conceding early scores and allowed the likes of Chris Robshaw and Matt Symons to stunt the threatening momentum slowly building in a Saints' attack guided by Wales and Lions standoff Dan Biggar.
An ambitious Northampton offloading had seemed to finally stick two minutes into the second-half after early attempts either resulted in one of the many handling errors or promising attacking phases that failed to prosper points.
Harry Mallinder tussled through Harlequins' midfield from fullback and sent deft offload to scrum-half Cobus Reinach to cross the whitewash. However, a hand from Quins' hooker Elia Elia prevented the Springbok halfback from scoring the home side's opening try.
This honour went to returnee club and country skipper Dylan Hartley, who christened his first Franklin’s Gardens appearance for eight months with a try off the back of a Saints' driving maul spearheaded by co-captain and frontrow compatriot Alex Waller.
Hartley's points came as an immediate reaction to Danny Care's sniping score just three minutes earlier for the first try of the game in the 52nd minute.
Northampton may have stolen the ascendancy in the scrum after troubles in the opening phases, but their error rate at the lineout and around the park did not share the same level of improvement.
In their battle to overcome a 12 point deficit, Harlequins continued to receive turnover ball from their hosts through unforced errors and successful Quins turnovers. One such glaring error saw Saints' wing Ahsee Tuala commit the schoolboy error of dropping the ball whilst under no pressure, gifting Paul Gustard's Harlequins 40 metres field position.
A cutting linebreak from replacement fly-half James Lang three minutes later set Harlequins up for a late attempt for victory, cutting between Saints' defenders to sprint in from 40 metres out. A missed conversion put the visitors four points away from consecutive victories during the season's opening rounds.
However, a 75th-minute penalty from substitute centre Paul Lasike allowed Harry Mallinder to return Northampton to a seven-point lead at 25-18; a score that remained until the final whistle after one of last season's stars for Northampton Jamie Gibson produced a turnover winning counter ruck to steal possession and wrap up the first of the weekend's fixtures.
A first defeat as head honcho for Gustard, testing the resilience of the squad under his charge. A squad that struggled to recover from such defeats last season in objectionable fashion.
Meanwhile, opposite man Chris Boyd will find himself celebrating victory for only a short period, sure to run the rule over the Black, Green and Gold for an abhorrent number of errors, both forced and unforced.
Tries: Dylan Hartley (56)
Conversions: Dan Biggar (56)
Penalties: Dan Biggar (19, 33, 40, 45, 62), Harry Mallinder (76)
Tries: Danny Care (52), James Lang (72)
Conversions: Marcus Smith (52)
Penalties: Marcus Smith (7, 64)
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