THERE WERE some ominous signs at Franklins Gardens yesterday. In only the second week of the season the rows of empty seats and ugly gaps on the terraces normally occupied by a passionately committed and loyal support sent the chilling message that, in the professional age, the tolerance threshold of the paying public is perilously low and is, to a large extent, influenced by instant success.
Both sides opened their campaigns badly last week and for Harlequins, at least, the future looks considerably worse. In the short term, they will have to soldier on without their England international prop Jason Leonard who, quite properly, was sent off after just 21 minutes of the match following a sickeningly premeditated stamp on the unguarded head of the Northampton flanker Budge Pountney.
It was as unnecessary as it was reckless and the crowd's angry reaction as Leonard left the field will no doubt remain with him for some time to come. His disgrace left his comrades in the lurch.
Up until that point they had struggled to profit from a strong wind in their favour. But they had at least defended stoutly and had succeeded in reducing Northampton to a ragged and confused bunch of individuals incapable of stringing two consecutive passes together. But without Leonard, Quins were themselves bewitched and bewildered and ultimately well beaten.
It was Jason Keyter's misfortune that he had to follow Leonard into the dressing-room, the sacrificial lamb in Quins' need to replace their prop with the specialist David Barnes, but with Northampton's Garry Pagel beginning to exert his considerable influence in the scrummage, Northampton were already well ahead in that particular battle.
The final score, deserved as it was, was nevertheless highly flattering to Northampton, who had overcome their early convulsions by scoring 15 points in seven minutes before half-time. Paul Grayson kicked a penalty, which was followed by two tries, the first, and his first in English rugby, by the French centre David Dantiacq and the second by Grant Seely. Dantiacq's try was a gem and had its origins in Quins' careless kick-off following Grayson's penalty, which went straight into touch.
From the scrummage on the centre line Tim Rodber exploded off the side and charged upfield to set up a promising attacking position inside the 22. …