Harlequins ended the Guinness Premiership season with a five-try, five-point victory which had all the elements of their campaign, a mixture of the superb and the very ordinary.
In the end, however, they fully deserved to wrap up the season with a victory – with late determination proving decisive. However, they failed to achieve their target of a top six finish. For former champions Sale, a campaign spent fighting to stave off relegation can hardly be regarded as a successful season..
It was a special day for wing David Strettle and hooker Tani Fuga – both playing their final games for Harlequins. England wing Strettle is joining Saracens while Fuga has become a free agent. The hosts lost lock James Percival after only two minutes. He was hurt in an open play tackle and left the field on a stretcher after three minutes treatment to be replaced by Tomas Vallejos.
But two minutes later the mood in the home camp was a lot lighter as George Lowe raced clear up the left to open the scoring in fine style with a try created for him by Jordan Turner-Hall. Fly-half Nick Evans missed the conversion. With six minutes gone Quins went 12-0 up when Evans produced a splendidly accurate cross-kick which Strettle plucked out of the air wide on the right to score from close range. This time Evans made no mistake for the extra two points.
Sale gained in confidence and their continued pressure was finally rewarded when Hodgson converted a straightforward penalty from in front of the posts on 20 minutes. However, the former England fly-half left the field two minutes later looking very groggy after needing treatment following a tackle.
The game tilted the visitors’ way when referee White sin-binned Vallejos for a deliberate obstruction in the 28th minute. Sale needed only two minutes more to capitalise. England centre Mathew Tait won possession on halfway and beat three opponents in a tremendous solo run that took him behind the posts. Lee Thomas converted to make the score 12-10 at the interval.
Having exerted all the pressure early in the second half Quins fell behind to a sucker punch in the 47th minute. Sale looked to have lost momentum when an attack broke down but when the ball was scrambled back to Thomas the centre produced a tremendous snap drop-goal to edge the visitors in front for the first time.
To make matters worse for the hosts they lost influential fly-half Evans to a thigh strain minutes later leaving replacement Rory Clegg to begin his involvement by taking a penalty. However, the youngster kept his nerve and regained the lead for Quins.
After a spell of cat-and-mouse kicking from end to end the hosts stepped up a gear in the 59th minute. The hugely impressive Strettle began the move with a darting break from inside his own half and by the time Nick Easter burst in on the right to score Quins’ third try, the ball passed through eight pairs of hands. Clegg missed the conversion.
Quins extended their lead in the 69th minute when Sale were penalised for not retreating 10 yards as Clegg kicked the penalty without fuss. But the visitors refused to lie down and were back in the hunt three minutes later when a period of sustained pressure was rewarded when the pack drove over Sisaro Koyamaibole. The conversion by Thomas reduced the lead to three points.
Quins, however, were determined the end the season on a high and struck twice in the last six minutes. Turner-Hall clenched the bonus points when he scored the fourth try, Clegg converting, then – with the last attack of the match – Tom Williams crossed to conclude the scoring.