Late Grayson penalty sees Northampton edge thriller with Harlequins | Premiership

The stakes were high, and happily for those who witnessed the Premiership’s latest end-to-end thriller, so was the level of entertainment. Harlequins demonstrated their endless fighting spirit before James Grayson’s long-range 77th-minute penalty edged Saints past the champions and secured a fifth consecutive league win. Northampton must still play Saracens and Newcastle, and are building what appears to be unstoppable momentum.

Marshalled superbly by their scrum-half, Alex Mitchell, the Saints attack was irresistible, despite losing three of their starting pack to injury before half-time. Their lines of running and joined-up approach threatened to overwhelm Quins before Tabai Matson’s side battled back into the lead after the break, and into position for the win that would have secured a playoff spot. But the Saints go marching on.

“I think it was a gutsy effort by the whole team but the pack particularly,” said Northampton rugby director Chris Boyd. “For them to hang in there and stay connected for long enough to get some territory, force a penalty, and sneak over the top, it was a pretty decent effort.”

On a clear, dry evening and on a pristine pitch it had not taken long for the home side to demonstrate their intent. A wonderful tip-on by Grayson helped create the first five-pointer, making space for a razor-sharp pass by Mitchell to release Lewis Ludlam, who chucked the ball inside for Tommy Freeman to sprint over.

Mitchell’s speed of service was doing damage and his rampaging run to the left was interrupted only by a try-saving tackle by his opposite number, Danny Care. The Saints prop Conor Carey was taken off on a stretcher after going down injured in the same move, after Northampton had already lost their No 8 Juarno Augustus to injury. Neither setback did anything to deter the hosts: Ludlam soon snuck over for their second try after the ball was again sent fizzing through hands.

Marcus Smith clipped a penalty over to bring the visitors within four and at the other end, Matt Proctor slipped spectacularly after being wrong-footed by a bouncing cross kick. Paul Hill, who came off the bench for Carey minutes before, took a blow to the head from Courtney Lawes; Hill went off and the referee, Matthew Carley, switched to uncontested scrums. George Furbank soon stretched a hand for the line for Northampton’s third try.

The home team led by nine and only a crunching hit by Furbank stopped Andre Esterhuizen from tearing over the try-line, but a cute cross-kick by Smith saw Joe Marchant pull off an outrageous leap, catch and pass inside for Huw Jones, the full-back, who streaked under the posts. It was a glorious piece of skill by Marchant that survived a TMO check for a foot in touch.

Tommy Freeman touches down Northampton’s opening try. Photograph: Dennis Goodwin / ProSports / Shutterstock

Perhaps fans of the darker arts did not appreciate it, but few of those present seemed to mind about the uncontested scrums. Northampton smashed over for their fourth, bonus-point try from Alex Waller inside the final five minutes of the half after a couple of a crushing carries by Ludlam.

Saints seemed set fair but it was Quins that roared out of the second-half blocks. Alex Dombrandt celebrated his 25th birthday by picking an excellent line to crash over for their third try and when Cadan Murley sped over for their own bonus-point try and Smith converted, Quins hit the front.

An ill-judged high hit by Santiago Garcia Botta on Furbank saw Carley produce a yellow card and Quins competed impressively to maintain their advantage until the Argentinian prop returned. With two points in it and 10 minutes remaining, it was impossible to imagine an undramatic conclusion. A couple of Saints’ turnovers felt significant: and when the Quins replacement Luke Wallace was penalized, Grayson nervelessly nailed the penalty, and the Franklin’s Gardens crowd went wild.

Matson said: “With two minutes to go and you’re in front, you think: jeez, we could sneak away here. But that’s the great thing about the game, isn’t it? I just saw Boydy, who’s an old friend of mine, and we can sit back and go: “That was a good game of rugby.”

Quins must now face Gloucester and then Exeter, both playoff rivals. There will be more good games to come.

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