When Harlequins hired Pete Tong to supply the pre-match entertainment there was clearly a slight risk of everything going, well, festively pear-shaped. Happily for the English champions it did not turn out that way on an evening that again showed what is possible when professional rugby makes an effort to promote itself properly.
On all levels Big Game 13 was a rip-roaring success, a revved-up crowd being treated to nine tries and a far higher standard of breathless entertainment than anyone had a right to expect on a wet December night.
While the eventual Covid strike-rate among the 70,000-plus attendees may also prove spectacular, it is only fair to report that most of those present seemed delighted to be out of the house. That was certainly the case for Alex Dombrandt, who scored a splendid hat-trick of tries to reinforce his claims to be England’s starting No 8. André Esterhuizen, Danny Care, Cadan Murley and Tyrone Green were also prominent as Northampton, 21-7 early on, fell away. The Saints ended up a distant second in terms of the penalty count but will still enter the new year in fifth place in the Premiership table.
Quins are now up to third and have not lost a Big Game for seven years when, as it happens, Northampton were also the opposition. On this occasion they had to manage without Marcus Smith, ruled out by Covid, but were still plenty good enough for long enough to give first-time fans an idea of what they have been missing.
Only a complete dullard, certainly, could object to the dramatic lighting, the fireworks or the slick staging of the occasion, even if Quins’ change kit does remain one for the purist. Maybe the idea of dressing the players in cigar brown was supposed to be some kind of smoking-hot allusion but it clashed slightly with the spirit of this uniquely colourful occasion, which also featured an earlier 29-5 win for Harlequins women over Wasps. That said, this was ultimately a thriller from the hosts’ perspective after an uncertain start.
Northampton began with real purpose and had three tries on the board inside 15 minutes, two of them scored by their alert No 8 Juarno Augustus. If the second was a tad fortuitous, the ball skewing off George Furbank’s boot into the South African’s path as the Quins defence looked on quizzically, there was no disputing the intent of Lewis Ludlam as he helped set up the attacking position which led to Alex Waller’s close-range score.
At 21-7 down the game was theoretically in danger of drifting away from Quins but when they go behind there is rarely a sense their predicament is permanent. The combination of a greasy surface, the desire of all concerned to put on a show and some clever attacking lines from both sides made for a combination of thrills and spills and the hosts were back level soon enough. First Murley, currently performing as effectively as any winger in the Premiership, enthusiastically dived over and shortly afterwards the Salisbury RFC product was again on hand to score after lovely midfield footwork from Will Edwards, Smith’s understudy, had created an all-important half-metre of space.
Dan Biggar, doing his best to add some shape and structure to proceedings, did briefly regain the lead with the first half’s solitary penalty but the momentum was starting to swing away from the Saints. Sure enough, just before the interval, another confident forward drive took Harlequins within a couple of metres and Care, like a magician confidently plucking a rabbit from a hat, turned to set up his mate Dombrandt for another irrepressible score.
Northampton, to their credit, were not entirely finished and led for much of the third quarter thanks to Biggar’s second penalty. What makes Quins such a difficult side to put away, however, is their unerring ability to fashion opportunities through a combination of calculated ambition and excellent basic skills. On 55 minutes Tom Lawday showed good awareness to slip the replacement Luke Northmore away down the narrow side and Louis Lynagh rounded off a 75-metre attack which few other teams would have embarked upon never mind completed.
After Dombrandt had rounded things off with another smart close-range score, the only dissenting voice was Chris Boyd when asked if he was a secret Pete Tong fan. “Is that music or noise?” replied Northampton’s dry-witted director of rugby. The face of the modern game may be changing fast but here’s hoping it never loses its instinctive sense of humour.