Friday, 20th March 2020 @ 00:00
As rugby returns for the first time in five months in the northern hemisphere following the coronavirus lockdown, Harlequins battled to a hugely important 16-10 win a tight Gallagher Premiership table.
Harlequins faced an early threat through a Sale lineout within the home side’s own 22, with blockbuster number eight Alex Dombrandt collecting an overthrown ball from Sale’s Akker van de Merwe. Quins keep the pressure on during the early stages, winning a scrum penalty shortly after Byron McGuigan knocked on a box kick from Quins Argentine halfback Martin Landajo.
Possession flitted between the two sides through a number of phases, with captain Chris Robshaw claiming a chest-thumping turnover at the breakdown within the first ten minutes to halt Sale’s momentum. Robshaw would go on to show the passion and desire that marks him as a true leader in his final games for Quins.
Harlequins would go on to claim the first points of the day, with mercurial fly-half Marcus Smith slotting three points after Sale were penalised in the play following Quins’ lineout drive. With a three-nil lead on the visitors, Quins went on to claim a second penalty shortly after the kick-off ten metres our from the home side’s 22 line, seeing inside centre James Lang kick for a lineout just inside Sale’s half.
Harlequins dashed straight through the middle of the Sale defence following a Dombrandt half break, with the popular back row offloading to 84-cap halfback Landajo. The South American’s subsequent grubber would bobble through the Sale defence, with the visitors clearing their lines.
Quins’ pressure would go on to proffer three more points for Smith, with Sale conceding another penalty within their own half, paying for their lack of possession as the clock neared the 20-minute mark, giving Qinns a 6-0 lead, defying the pundits.
Sale would earn their first shot at goal shortly after Smith’s second set of points, with Quins caught offside. However, Sale fly-half Robert du Preez would miss his shot, leaving Quins six points up with eighteen minutes to go in the first-half.
Quins would earn another chance to pressure the Sharks after the visitors conceded another two penalties in quick succession, seeing Smith dependably kick another three points to take Harlequins nine points clear.
Sale applied immediate pressure from the kick-off, only for Quins to roar up to Sale’s five metre line after a well-weighted cross-field kick was collected by debutant wing Chris Ashton. Ashton kicked inside for returning centre Joe Marchant to collect. But Quins would be denied a chance to add a try to Smith’s three posts, with Quins conceding a turnover inches from Sale’s line. With little over five minutes to play Quins continue to apply pressure on the ill-disciplined away team.
Rob du Preez would unexpectedly miss his second shot at points for the day with the clock in the red before the half-time break, seeing Quins head into the changing rooms with nine points to Sale’s zero.
A half-time talk would prove to be exactly what the doctor ordered for Steve Diamond’s men, with McGuigan making the most of an overlap down the right side of the field and touching down for Sale’s opening points despite the best defensive efforts of Marchant. Du Preez would slot his third attempt at goal for the day to bring the score 9 – 7 to Harlequins. Despite the lack of crowd, the tension was palpable in a tightly contested battle.
Sale piled further pressure on immediately after claiming the first try of the day, with a winning scrum penalty on the halfway, turning the tide at a set-piece dominated by Quins during the opening 40.
With props tiring twelve minutes into the second half the first substitutes of the day come, with Sale swapping starting props Coenie Oosthuisen and Will-Griff John with Ross Harrisson and Jake Cooper-Woolley at loosehead and tighthead respectively.
But the changes would prove to make little immediate impact, with Quins driving lineout powering it’s way into the Sale 22 on the far side of the pitch, seeing the home side awarded a penalty after a Sale infringement. Another kick to the corner would see Quins set up another lineout just outside Sale’s five-metre line.
Quins’ pressure would come good, with Sale fullback Simon Hammersley conceding a yellow card for an infringement on the Sharks’ try line. Another lineout later and Welsh international hooker Scott Baldwin would crash over for the home side’s first try of the day. Smith converts for a 16-7 lead.
Play restarts and Quins pressure Sale once more, this time with the kicking game as Yarde’s returning punt spikes off within Sale’s half, allowing Quins a lineout 30 metres out from Sale’s line. Smith kicks for territory this time and Sale take their own lineout just inside their own 22. Sale’s Springbok scrum-half Faf de Klerk’s clearance would afford Quins another lineout around 30 metres from the Sale line, with the halfback leaving the field shortly after in exchange for number 21 Will Cliff.
Landajo adds to the halfback volley shortly after Cliff has arrived in the field of play, threading a swerving box kick within Sale’s 22. He visitors have a lineout as Quins pressure once more, with Cliff’s own clearing box-kick regathered by Ashton and immediately returned into the space in Sale’s backfield in the absence of Hammersley through the boot of Smith. Sale have another lineout within their own 22. As we set for the lineout, Quins blindside James Chisholm is replaced by substitute back row Tom Lawday. Nine points up and with little over fifteen minutes to go, Quins look to continue their pressure, with the Quin scrum putting the visitors under the pump once more.
Changes come once more for Quins as a lull in play sees impressive scrummaging tighthead Simon Kerrod replaced by England international Will Collier in the three jersey, with scrum-half Scott Steele coming off the bench to make his Club debut as he replaces Landajo, who has played a clever tactical game today whilst displaying flashes of attacking intent.
With 10 minutes to go Sale Sharks pulled three points back with a penalty from MacGinty after consistent pressure inside the Quins 22. From a period of power from Quins, the tension returns as Sale are back to 15 players on the pitch and pushing forward to find a way through.
Quins pushed up the field and a driving maul again from a line out was a sign of Jerry Flannery’s early influence, but petered out as Sale again showed defensive prowess. Eddie Jones became the centre of attention on TV as another injury pause brought the game to a standstill. The sight of medical staff in full hazmat suits is something we may become accustomed to in the coming weeks. Jones certainly would have been impressed by Marcus Smith who had an outstanding match, dictating the play with an array of clever short kicks in particular, alongside dependable kicks when it counts for points.
With 5 minutes to go Quins brought on Dino Lamb for Stephen Lewies who had struggled with a leg niggle for much of the second half. Joe Gray replaced Scott Baldwin as Quins brought further fresh legs on after a bruising front row clash. Quick ball from Sale continued to put pressure on Quins and a kick to the corner penned Quins into their own 22 with 2 minutes left on the clock.
De Jager again the target of the line out and drive but Quins brilliantly broke back with Simmonds breaking through their line to win a scrum. Under huge pressure from Sale who gave everything to win against the head, Quins, led by a brilliant effort from Gray won a vital penalty to run down the clock to see out a huge win for Quins in an incredibly tight table.
Martin Landajo picked up the Man of the Match award for some superb marshalling of his team but this truly was a huge team effort against a powerful and highly fancied Sharks team. With the return of so many key players, Gustard and his coaching team will be delighted with their first game back points in the bag. The Stoop had a slightly eerie feel without supporters but the familiar Mighty Quin blasting out in heavy metal at the end of the game will be music to the ears of all those watching on TV and just happy to see rugby back at last.
Next up Quins take on Saracens at Allianz Park on Saturday 22nd August.