Harlequins are still on course to retain their Aviva Premiership crown after they set-up a play-off semi-final with Leicester Tigers at Welford Road next week after an all-star show from England scrum-half Danny Care set up a 22-19 victory over Northampton Saints.
The No.9 was at the heart of everything good about Conor O’Shea’s men in defence and attack as Care seemed like a man with a point to prove following his exclusion from the Lions squad bound for Australia this summer.
Quins’ win against fourth-place Northampton means they finish the regular season in third position and with the opportunity to add to their LV= Cup crown secured in March later this month.
The Saints had won five of their last six Aviva Premiership fixtures heading to the Stoop but the control offered by Care and New Zealander Nick Evans behind the scrum for Harlequins was eventually telling.
Evans put Quins ahead after 11 minutes as the Kiwi picked himself up from an earlier hit by Northampton’s Luther Burrell to knock over a penalty.
Ten minutes later Quins got lucky as England full-back Ben Foden misjudged a kick through from Care and Tom Williams was the lucky recipient as he gathered the ball to touchdown – Evans added the extras.
Falling 10-0 behind seemed to spring Northampton into life but they were first frustrated as a George Pisi score, following excellent work by Courtney Lawes at the lineout, was chalked off for obstructing earlier in the move.
But on 28 minutes Northampton did get on the scoreboard as Foden redeemed his earlier error by chipping through for Saints’ flyer Jamie Elliott to gather the ball and race down the touchline to score but Stephen Myler couldn’t add the extras.
And Northampton had the opportunity to move within two points of Quins with five minutes of the first half remaining but Myler again missed his effort at goal.
Harlequins regrouped at the break and came out after the interval like an express train – hooker Rob Buchanan showed tremendous strength to burrow his way to the try-line for his second ever Aviva Premiership try – with Evans again adding the extras.
Jim Mallinder’s Northampton Saints were punished for not taking the restart correctly as Harlequins came out all guns blazing.
Quins should have been further in front minutes later but the ever-reliable boot of Evans let the home side down as the former All Black sent his penalty attempt wide of the posts.
But Care got Quins moving in the right direction again, exploding off the base of a ruck to get the home side going forward, the ball was recycled and moved out wide where centre Tom Casson gathered the ball out of the hands of club-mate Tom Williams and touched down for a score.
The try should have effectively killed the game but Evans was unable to add the extras, leaving Harlequins 22-5 ahead with just under 30 minutes to play.
Northampton refused to lie down though and picked up a lifeline with 16 minutes of the second-half gone as Australia-bound Lion Dylan Hartley emerged from the bottom of a ruck with ball in hand after a powerful Saints drive following a Quins penalty.
Harlequin Nick Easter was saved a trip to the sin-bin for coming in at the side twice during the catch and drive as Northampton managed to get the ball down for a Hartley score – Myler this time added the extras.
And just four minutes later Care was this time the saviour for Quins, collecting the ball over his own try-line to prevent Elliott scoring his second try of the game.
The pressure continued from Northampton though and with 61 minutes of the game gone, Christian Day collected the ball out wide, following quick hands from fly-half Myler, to bring the Saints back to within a score of Quins.
Myler again added the extras with the conversion as Northampton Saints stormed back to within three points of the home side.
14 unanswered points from Northampton seemed to rock Quins and the home side looked to extend their advantage as replacement Ben Botica attempted a long range penalty but his effort drifted wide of the posts.
After 69 minutes Quins wasted a glorious two-on-one opportunity as Ugo Monye slipped with just one man to beat following a fine give and go by England full-back Mike Brown.
From the resulting line-out, a fumble in midfield with a huge overlap available, compounded a horrible passage of play for Harlequins.
Quins played territory rugby for the final ten minutes and saw the game out as they went through the phases and ran the clock down.