Daly snatches win for Saracens while Harlequins rue Smith’s absence

It is impossible to know if Marcus Smith would have tilted this match in Harlequins’ favour but the fact he was not allowed to play while Saracens’ England contingent all contributed to their narrow victory – ultimately settled by Elliot Daly’s long-range penalty – left a cloud hanging over an otherwise entertaining London derby and provided a reminder that club rugby in England rarely helps itself.

The Harlequins coach, Tabai Matson, did his best to bite his lip afterwards but there is something awry when Smith is limited to shuttle runs before kick-off while Owen Farrell and Billy Vunipola, and to a lesser extent Maro Itoje, Jamie George and Mako Vunipola, are allowed to influence matters in this manner. To recap, England players from the Australia tour are still supposed to be resting but, while Saracens were given dispensation to field theirs ahead of schedule, Harlequins were blocked from playing Smith. In his absence Tommy Allan performed admirably but one cannot but wonder whether Smith, who has a habit of pulling rabbits out of the hat late on and turning defeats into victories, would have been able to sprinkle enough stardust to turn the match Harlequins’ way.

How much influence Eddie Jones, who was in attendance at the Stoop, had on the decision is unclear. The Rugby Football Union says he does not have the authority single-handedly to block an application for players to return early but he has input and the Saracens director of rugby, Mark McCall, confirmed afterwards that the England head coach’s say is considerable. “All we do is put a plan in and we get the thumbs up or thumbs down,” said Matson. “We knew that it was probably going to create a kerfuffle for our fans and for probably everyone looking in from the outside. But we can only move forward with the group that we have.”

Even without Smith, Harlequins still had their moments and there is a strong case to be made that Alex Dombrandt’s withdrawal just before half-time through injury was more significant, such was his influence. But the inconsistency points to a wider problem. This is one of the most eye-catching fixtures in a competition desperate for more eyeballs. Had any of the casual fans that Premiership Rugby is so eager to attract turned on their TVs, expecting to see Smith lining up against Farrell, they may well have switched off immediately.

It would be a shame if they did because this was an engrossing encounter to the very last moment when Farrell kicked the ball out to end the match and celebrate with the sort of aggression he is renowned for. He was among Saracens’ best performers; so too was Billy Vunipola – all the more galling for Harlequins as he played more minutes for club and country than Smith last season. “The parties involved are the player, very importantly, the club, Eddie Jones, PRL and the [Rugby Players’ Association],” said McCall. “I think it’s a really good process, actually. The decisions are taken in the best interests of the player and obviously we’re delighted to have our players available today. It’s very important that there isn’t a general rule for everybody. It shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all. It should be on a case-by-case basis. I certainly see it as a sensible process.”

Harlequins made a breathless start with two tries in the opening 10 minutes from Cadan Murley – the second put on a plate by Dombrandt – and an Allan penalty giving them a commanding 17-0 lead. It was Saracens’ first match of the season and hitherto they had played like it but Daly was bright throughout and registered the visitors’ first points with a try on the left before setting up another for Max Malins soon after on the right.

Harlequins responded with a third try through Joe Marchant after Dombrandt had levelled Nick Tompkins to stop a Saracens counterattack, then intercepted Farrell’s pass and released his winger but the No8 was forced to make way with a hamstring injury. After the break Farrell’s influence grew and tries from Malins – after a rank pass from the Harlequins scrum-half Lewis Gjaltema – and Tompkins edged them ahead and, though Allan’s penalty briefly levelled the scores at 27-27, Daly had the final say with a booming kick from just inside the Harlequins half.