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Harlequins up to third with win over Northampton despite Marcus Smith absence

By PA

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Harlequins overcame the Covid-enforced absence of Marcus Smith to edge Northampton 41-27 at Twickenham in a victory that propelled them to third in the Gallagher Premiership.

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England fly-half Smith was ruled out on Boxing Day but Quins proved they remain an effective attacking machine even without their young ringmaster as Will Edwards emerged as an able deputy.

A breathless ‘Big Game 13? produced nine tries with five delivered in the first 18 minutes alone, but the champions were more ruthless in the setting for last season’s Premiership final triumph.

Number eight Alex Dombrandt was at the heart of their victory with his three tries the reward for intelligent running lines in a high-quality match that was played out in front of a 72,785 crowd.

England open their Six Nations against Scotland on February 5 and Dombrandt’s compelling performance will have given Eddie Jones plenty to reflect upon, even if he was edged for man of the match by Andre Esterhuizen.

Northampton were booed on to the pitch once the pre-match entertainment led by Pete Tong had finished but the hostile reception ignited a fiery start from Saints as Juarno Augustus crashed over from a line-out.

Quins responded when Dombrandt picked a clever line to cross from close range but the lively opening continued when Augustus touched down a kick that came off the shin of George Furbank.

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And Saints stepped up their onslaught when Lewis Ludlam surged clear down the left touchline and once he was eventually halted inches short of the line Alex Waller was on hand to collect and burrow over.

But Dombrandt was pivotal again as Quins careered downfield, setting up the position for Edwards to send Cadan Murley over an undermanned line.

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Esterhuizen was punching holes in defence from inside centre and the champions showed their clinical touch once more as Edwards used his footwork to create the space for Murley to run in his second.

The lead changed hands for the first time on the stroke of the interval as an arrowing line-out splintered Northampton and, showing quick wits, Danny Care took the ball to feed an onrushing Dombrandt.

Early in the second half the tempo had clearly slowed, indicating a temporary ceasefire to the fireworks that had lit up Twickenham so far, and Saints crept back in front 27-26 when Dan Biggar landed a penalty.

Matt Symons and Api Ratuniyarawa tangled as tempers flared in the 52nd minute but the scuffle prompted another exhilarating period of end to end play that ended when Louis Lynagh outpaced Courtnall Skosan into the left corner.

While Lynagh showed his gas to edge Skosan, it was the offloading skills and vision of flanker Tom Lawday that made the try as he created an opening out of nothing and supplied Luke Northmore, who delivered the final pass.

Quins’ lead was only four points but they were heavily favoured by a penalty count that was beginning to stack up against the visitors.

In a sign of just how close the game was, Quins went for goal for the first time in the closing stages with Edwards on target to extend the advantage to a converted try.

Care and Rory Hutchinson were sent to the sin-bin as another bout of shoving broke out, but there was no way back for Northampton as Dombrandt completed his hat-trick with seconds left.

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