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Marcus Smith watches Saracens edge out Harlequins as rugby once again shoots itself in the foot

Harlequins 27-30 Saracens: Owen Farrell’s men beat frustrated hosts after losing a SEVENTEEN point lead in London derby lite… but rugby shoots itself in the foot again with Marcus Smith ruled out

  • Harlequins fell to a 27-30 home defeat to London rivals Saracens in the Stoop
  • Marcus Smith was unable to participate after being withdrawn for welfare reasons
  • Tabai Matson described the problem that prevented Smith’s selection as a ‘kerfufle’
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During his post-match debriefing, Saracens coach Mark McCall spent most of his time explaining the email process to get permission to select his England players. Perhaps this result should go down in history as a win for his administration team, as well as for the players themselves.

Once again, rugby found a way to shoot itself in the foot. Fans bought tickets to watch the duel between Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell, but to their frustration, Harlequins was prevented from selecting their number 10 for welfare reasons. Smith was allowed to participate in the warm-up but spent the rest of the day in a corporate box. A London derbylite.

Smith saw his team race to an early 17-0 lead, but Saracens, stacked with Farrell, Billy Vunipola and Maro Itoje, inevitably fought back to take the win. Jamie George and Mako Vunipola were released from the bench in the second half and Quins couldn’t hold out.

Fans were denied the chance to take on Marcus Smith against his England team-mate Owen Farrell
Fans were denied the chance to take on Marcus Smith against his England team-mate Owen Farrell

Fans were denied the chance to take on Marcus Smith against his England team-mate Owen Farrell

“All those guys had their moments,” McCall admitted. ‘The process is actually very simple. There is a rule and you submit an application. You write an email. The parties involved are the player, very importantly, the club, Eddie Jones, PRL and the RPA. I think it’s actually a really good process. The decisions are made in the best interest of the player and of course we are delighted that our players are available today.”

Quins coach Tabai Matson did not share McCall’s enthusiasm for the process. Two weeks into the season and rugby’s off-field structures are already dominating the conversation. Matson bit his tongue, describing the situation as a “kerfuffle” and praising the performance of Smith’s understudy, Tommy Allen.

Allen, Italy’s number 10, was instrumental in Quins’ early attack. He exploited the rust in the Saracen machine. In their first game of the season, Saracens’ ball retention was poor.

Saracens came back from 17-0 behind to seal a memorable 30-27 London derby win over Quins
Saracens came back from 17-0 behind to seal a memorable 30-27 London derby win over Quins

Saracens came back from 17-0 behind to seal a memorable 30-27 London derby win over Quins

Within three minutes, Allen plummeted from a penalty for a lineout, providing the platform for Cadan Murley’s opening try. Shortly afterwards, Alex Dombrandt snatched the ball from Ivan van Zyl and sent Murley away for a long-range second. McCall banged his fist in frustration as his players lost the ball at the ruck, as Allen kicked Quins to their 17-0 lead.

That was as good as it got for the hosts. Battle by battle, the Saracens fought back. There were glimpses of renewed ambition in the Sarries attack. In the past they have resorted to pragmatic box kicks on their own half, but here they walked with their heads high. They kept the ball alive in the tackle – 18 offloads to 1 – as quick hands from Farrell, Billy Vunipola and Nick Tompkins set up Elliot Daly’s try.

Attacking from a quickly formed lineout, Ben Earl Powered gave Max Malins the visitors second through midfield and Alex Lozowski’s tap pass.

Tabai Matson praised Smith's stand-in for the day, Italian fly-half Tommy Allen
Tabai Matson praised Smith's stand-in for the day, Italian fly-half Tommy Allen

Tabai Matson praised Smith’s stand-in for the day, Italian fly-half Tommy Allen

Sometimes their ambition failed. Lozowski threw a loose pass into his own 22 and Farrell palmed the ball into Dombrandt’s arms, who scored the score by Joe Marchant. But shortly afterwards Dombrandt left with an injury and the replacements for the Harlequins had no chance.

“We want to attack better than last year and I think the players there feel comfortable doing that anywhere on the pitch, as long as it’s the right thing to do,” McCall said.

Billy Vunipola's power on the ball helped his side get onto the field
Billy Vunipola's power on the ball helped his side get onto the field

Billy Vunipola’s power on the ball helped his side get onto the field

“We didn’t always make those decisions right today. Honestly, it didn’t feel like it was a 17-0 game. Those are bad mistakes of course, but that was our first game of the season.

“I thought we showed enough character and intention to continue and we played well in the second half. I think you’ve seen good intentions from the team.’

For the watching Eddie Jones, Billy Vunipola’s powerful porters helped his team on the field. And when Lewis Gjaltema and Tyrone Greene messed up their backfield cover, Malins struck to even the scores. Saracens enjoyed most of the area in the second half and after 62 minutes Tompkins took the lead with the bonus point try.

Allen evened the scores for a while, but Elliot Daly’s long-distance penalty proved decisive. Quins went looking for one last counterpunch but it never came. And Smith’s absence left only the lingering questions of what could have been.

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