Harlequins coach Mark Mapletoft says he has never seen the side defend as well as they did against Saracens on Saturday – even if Quins ultimately slipped to a frustrating defeat.
It was not until 10 minutes from the end that the Premiership champions finally got their noses in front through the boot of Owen Farrell, and the gutsy performance that preceded it offered a big consolation to Quins’ head of rugby, Paul Gustard, and his coaching staff.
They believe it is a sign they are rebuilding well after a dismal campaign last season which saw the departure of John Kingston as director of rugby.
“I haven’t see us defend as well as that in a long, long time,” said Mapletoft, even if he is usually more preoccupied with the attacking side of the game.
“If you guys have, I’d appreciate if you could send me the tape,” he said to reporters after the 25-20 defeat.
“That was incredible under immense pressure from them [Saracens]. They’ve pretty much clipped everybody this year, so I couldn’t be more proud of the defensive effort they put in.
“Today we were pitting ourselves against the best team in the competition and I thought we were magnificent. It’s a mixture of incredible pride and incredible frustration we are feeling.
“We took so many strides backwards towards the end of last year – there’s no hiding from that. This year we’ve been trying to build.
“I think it’s unrealistic to expect us to go from where we were – in terms of where we finished up last year – to jump to the other end of the spectrum.
“You saw tonight where the other end is, which is them [Saracens]. They are the market leaders in pretty much everything. At key times, we lacked a bit of composure, but in terms of measuring ourselves against the very best, that was a big step forward.”
An interception at a line-out allowed the ever-alert Danny Care to storm in under the posts just before the break after Quins had withstood a battering. They led 13-9 at the interval.
Marcus Smith’s boot was as unerring as Farrell’s but his first miscued penalty was freakishly plucked from the air by the onrushing Joe Marchant, as it drifted wide of he posts, and suddenly it was 20-15, with 25 minutes to play.
But Saracens are not standard-bearers for nothing, and with players like Maro Itoje and Schalk Burger to bring off the bench, they upped a gear, went through the phases and finally put England number eight Billy Vunipola in on the right corner.
An angled conversion and further penalty gave Farrell 20 points in total, to spoil a big night for Mike Brown, who was making a record-breaking 300th appearance for the club in front of England head coach Eddie Jones.
Four defeats from their opening six championship games is not a great return for Quins, but the signs were at least more positive, and next week’s Challenge Cup opener against Agen offers further scope for improvement.
“It’s a competition we’ve done well in,” said Mapletoft. “It’s not the competition we necessarily want to be in, but if you cast your mind back to when Conor [O’Shea] first came in, it’s a competition that allowed us to build some momentum into the following season, so who knows.
“I like to think we’ll be super competitive. It’s a great opportunity at home next week and straight away you want to put tonight’s frustrations behind us.”