Fly-half Owen Farrell kicks six out of six penalties as Saracens sneak narrow 18-16 win over Harlequins
Faultless kicking from fly-half Owen Farrell fired Saracens to a vital 18-16 victory over reigning league champions Harlequins at the Stoop.
Saracens were behind for much of the match but determination, stubborn defending, and six out of six penalties converted by Farrell, saw the Men in Black go home with an all-important four points.
Mark McCall’s men continued with their much-scrutinised rotation policy meaning Rhys Gill was handed his first start of the season while Schalk Brits, Petrus du Plessis, Ernst Joubert, Richard Wigglesworth, Chris Wyles, Joel Tomkins and captain Steve Borthwick all returned to the starting line-up.
Harlequins made two changes to the side that beat Leicester Tigers as Seb Stegmann came in for the injured Tom Williams and Tom Guest started at blindside flanker.
The first half was, for the most part, a scrappy affair with neither side able to stamp their authority as much as they would have hoped.
Quins fly-half Nick Evans was first to trouble the scoreboard as his penalty put the hosts ahead within two minutes.
Saracens responded positively enjoying spells of possession but lacking the spark in midfield to ever really threaten their opponents’ defence.
When the next chance came it fell again to Quins and again to Evans but his kick, this time wider and further out, agonisingly cannoned back off the post.
As the match struggled to find any rhythm the result was more sloppiness at the breakdown allowing both sides to capitalise, first through Farrell, then Evans, before Farrell made it two out of two to draw the scores level at 6-6.
Just before the half-hour mark Saracens broke through on the counter-attack but with numbers inside him, Ashton was unable to offload before being thrown into touch much to the delight of the home crowd.
The loudest cheer of the half though came three minutes before the interval when some effortless recycling of the ball allowed Quins scrum-half Danny Care to dart through and score under the posts, even though footage revealed a knock-on in the build-up which the officials failed to notice.
Evans kicked over the extras to give the home side a 13-9 advantage at the break.
The second half began in the same vein as much of the first with Farrell maintaining his 100 per cent record and slotting his fourth penalty through the posts from just inside the Quins half.
With the deficit reduced to 13-12, the visitors seemed to gain in confidence as they started playing a quicker, wider and bolder game through the backs.
And they were almost rewarded when Brits sold Care with a nimble side-step before poking the ball over the top for Chris Ashton to run on to.
Ashton won the race but an unfortunate bounce saw the ball elude the winger’s path and Harlequins were this time unscathed.
Evans missed a penalty at the other end before another sweet strike from Farrell put Saracens in the lead for the first time and the balance of the game seemed to be noticeably tipping in Saracens’ favour.
As the hour mark went by the game began to saunter with possession drifting from one side of the half-way line to the other.
Evans missed another kick for the hosts before indiscipline at the breakdown saw Saracens’ George Kruis sin-binned allowing Evans to compose himself and kick Quins into a one-point lead with 14 minutes to play.
Mark McCall shuffled his playmakers, bringing on the ever-reliable Charlie Hodgson for Chris Wyles with Farrell moving into inside centre.
But with the game’s climax approaching Evans continued to struggle, first missing his fourth penalty of the day before then ballooning a kick vertically up in the air so that it actually drifted backwards.
With panic instantaneously injected into the Quins defence a penalty was conceded allowing the faultless Farrell to boot Saracens into an 18-16 lead with just minutes left on the clock.
Harlequins pushed hard in the dying seconds to snatch a last-minute victory but the visitors held on for the much-needed win.
The victory pushes Saracens up to third in the table, six points behind leaders Northampton.
Harlequins: Brown; Stegman, Hopper, Turner-Hall, Monye; Evans, Care; Marler, Gray, Johnston; Kohn, Robson; Guest, Robshaw, Easter.
Subs: Buchanan for Gray (28), Matthews for Kohn (54), Fa'asavalu for Guest (54).
Saracens: Goode; Ashton, Tomkins, Barritt, Wyles; Farrell, Wigglesworth; Gill, Brits, Du Plessis; Borthwick, Hargreaves; Brown, Fraser, Joubert.
Subs: Strettle for Tomkins (53), Hodgson for Wyles (69), Spencer for Wigglesworth (74), Vunipola for Gill (49), Smit for Brits (63), Stevens for Du Plessis (45), Kruis for Hargreaves (54), Saull for Fraser (72).
Referee: Andrew Small