Saturday, 6th May 2017 @ 00:00
Harlequins lost to Northampton Saints 22-20 but the losing bonus point was enough for them to remain sixth in the league and qualify for the European Rugby Champions Cup next season.
In a thrilling encounter at Franklin’s Gardens, James Horwill and Joe Marchant crossed for Harlequins in the opening spell but the scores were level at 17-17 at the break.
With Quins recording more wins over the Aviva Premiership season an eight point win was needed for Northampton meaning Quins held a slight advantage.
The second half was a tighter affair, as a Nick Evans penalty was the only score for the visitors before Saints scored in the 69th minute to take the 22-20 lead.
A Horwill turnover eventually ended the encounter and while they lost 22-20 on the scoreboard, it was a win for Quins as they qualified for top tier European rugby for the first time in three seasons.
After a scintillating win at The Stoop last week against league leaders Wasps, Harlequins were looking to close their 150th Anniversary season on high as Champions Cup rugby was in their hands.
The visitors started on top and stand in captain Horwill powered over from close range to give them an early 0-7 lead with just three minutes gone.
A Marland Yarde break minutes later set up an Evans penalty as Quins extended their advantage, which for all intents and purposes was even larger as a losing bonus point was a beneficial result.
The sold out crowd at Franklin’s Gardens were not to be perturbed as they roared their side on and soon George North would close the gap with a score of his own.
Alex Waller banged over in the 24th minute, as Evans missed a pair of penalties, to allow Saints a 14-10 lead.
The riveting first half went back and forth as each side had chances but Quins would regain the lead after some brilliance by recently selected Lion Kyle Sinckler.
First the tighthead charged through a hole in the midfield, before a monstrous clean out minutes later forced a turnover, which he put on his boot to force Saints back into their own five metre line.
Quins began to lift the tempo and a half break by Mike Brown soon saw Marchant pick the ball up from the base of the ruck and dart over to regain the lead. His tenth try of an incredible season. Evans’ conversion from the sideline took the score to 14-17.
Harry Mallinder leveled with a penalty before the whistle as both sides headed to the sheds tied at 17-17.
The second half was lower scoring, but equally engaging, as both teams had everything to play for.
Quins struck first with an Evans penalty after ten minutes as he gave his side a 17-20 lead before leaving the field for the final time as a Harlequin.
Northampton piled on the pressure but two goal line defensive stands, as well as dominant scrum, kept Quins in the lead before a series of penalties almost cost them the encounter.
First Charlie Matthews would head to the sin bin for a deliberate knock down, though the visitors defence again got them out of trouble.
Ten minutes later however they weren’t so lucky.
A Horwill's high tackle went to the TMO, and while no card was shown, Api Ratuniyarawa barged over from close range to give Saints back the lead. Mallinder however would miss the simplest of conversions as the score stayed at 22-20.
Both sets of supporters would remain on the edge of the seats for the remainer of the match as a converted try would put the hosts into sixth.
The Quins scrum won another penalty but Saints had one final assault on the Harlequins line as time ran down. Finally with only seconds left, Horwill came up big again with a crucial turnover, which Charlie Mulchrone cleared into touch to the delight of the players, coaches and travelling support.
A loss in the record books, but John Kingston’s side got what they wanted from the match as they hung onto sixth place on the table.
While the season had its highs and lows the finish is the Club’s highest in three years and The Stoop will play host to top tier European rugby once again next season.