Harlequins 11 Saracens 19: Farrell provides the fireworks for record 82,000 crowd at HQ
Conor O”Shea was forced to acclaim Owen Farrell’s remarkable maturity and Test potential after Harlequins’ record- breaking festive extravaganza at Twickenham was spoiled by the Saracens rookie.
A crowd of 82,000 — the largest ever recorded for a club game in this country — massed at HQ with the vast majority hoping to see Quins extend their lead at the top of the Aviva Premiership table. Yet, after 25 minutes, Saracens were 19-3 ahead, Farrell had 14 points to his name and O’Shea’s men were chasing the game. They would never recover.
Christmas cracker: A record crowd of 82,000 was at Twickenham
This was a second defeat in three games for the team who had begun the season with a run of 14 straight victories. Having lost at home to Toulouse 16 days earlier, they had responded with an epic win in the return fixture but on this occasion they had no answer to Saracens’ initial power and control up front, allied to Farrell’s precision in front of goal.
At the end of last season, the 20-year-old had kicked his club to a maiden Premiership title in the final against Leicester. This time he was similarly assured and it was a good time to make such a positive statement, with England head coach Stuart Lancaster among the hordes in attendance.
Fireworks: The players run out at HQ
The Saracens scrum-half incurred the wrath of Quins fans for slowing the game at the base of rucks to launch high box kicks. The tedious but effective tactic attracted booing.
Many fans were in their seats in time for the pre-match entertainment which included Misha B, who gave Quins prop Joe Marler a run for his money in the crazy hairstyle stakes.
Groundstaff were on the pitch at half-time wearing Father Christmas hats as they did some gardening. But the surface didn’t look in great condition for a showpiece kick-started by X Factor’s Amelia Lily.
O’Shea said: ‘He does impress. I saw himat Loughborough in a training camp when he was 14 and it was an Under 18 camp and he ran the show. He’s an outstanding player. His dad (Saracens and England coach Andy Farrell) was a pretty good goal-kicker and I am sure he has taken a few lessons off him.
‘I am sure he will be a cornerstone for England for a long time.’
Aside from Farrell, there were others in the Saracens ranks who will have given Lancaster plenty to ponder before he names a Six Nations squad on January 11. Brad Barritt was a creative and destructive force in midfield and David Strettle excelled in the first half before going off after the break with a shoulder injury. But flanker Andy Saull was particularly impressive. The openside so often has to play second fiddleto Jacques Burger but given his opportunity, he was a menace at the breakdown throughout.
Saracens’ director of rugby Mark McCall said: ‘Andy was absolutely magnificent and I thought a lot of our young English players really madea good impression today — Brad Barritt, who is just getting better and better, Owen Farrell again and Alex Goode, who has really come into formin the last month or so. Ben Spencer really helped to close the game out and Mouritz Botha did well when he came on, too.
‘Hopefully the England coaches will take notice and I’m sure some of theQuins players have put themselves forward as well. Charlie Hodgson can’t be forgotten either — some of his long passes today were outstanding and I don’t think anyone else in England can pass the ball like him.’
Oh My: Joe Marler of Harlequins celebrates his try with team mates
Big game 4: Harlequins and Saracens served up a treat
In the opening period, Quins set their stall out to run free while Saracens were content to play a more steady, structured game. The lattertactic paid off and Farrell sent over three kicks for a 9-0 lead. Nick Evans finally put Quins on the board with a shot of his own before the visitors surged ahead in opportunistic fashion.
As O’Shea’s side tried to run out of defence, prop Joe Marler threw a pass towards Nick Easter on his own 22 without looking, Strettle picked it off and raced away to score, with Farrell converting before adding a fourth penalty.
Hold on: Brad Barritt of Saracens is tackled by Matt Hopper of Harlequins
Just before the break, the Saracens defence stood defiant as Quins swarmed forward. Chris Brooker and Easter were stopped short and when Jordan Turner-Hall’s pass was knocked on by Matt Hopper, the hosts had to settle for an Evans penalty to make it 19-6.
Sarries were finally breached in the 48th minute when Easter drove from alineout on the left and Danny Care sent Marler over to atone for his earlier lapse. But Evans missed the conversion and that proved decisive as Quins were unable to force even a losing bonus point, despite anotherlate Easter surge and off-load which was high and knocked on by Maurie Fa’asavalu.
Centre of attention: Owen Farrell of Saracens is tackled by Nick Easter (left) and Maurie Fa”asavalu of Harlequins
McCall was delighted with his players’ display of character and courage,saying: ‘That was a brilliant result for us. We were in control in thefirst half but in the second half Quins played scintillating rugby and we had to be at our very best to stop them. They are still ahead of us in the table so it was good that we were able to deny them a bonus pointwhich they probably deserved.’
Quins’ cushion has been reduced to five points and O’Shea said: ‘To givea lead to the Premiership champions was going to be difficult to claw back. We made too many errors at the start of the game but our guys fought tooth and nail to get back into it.’
Sounding a note of defiance, he added: ‘That wasn’t a cup final today. The cup final is in May and we will be there and ready for it.’