Harlequins rested their England contingent for their Wembley showdown with Saracens and paid the price by going down 39-17 and losing ground in the race for a place in the Aviva Premiership play-offs.
Chris Robshaw, Danny Care and Mike Brown were given the weekend off following their involvement in the RBS 6 Nations and Quins desperately missed their three most influential players.
While the trio were absent as a new attendance record for a club match of 83,889 was set at Wembley, Saracens started Owen Farrell and Mako Vunipola, both of whom featured against Italy last Saturday.
Farrell was superb as he masterminded Quins’ seventh defeat of the season behind a dominant pack, finishing with a try, three conversions and two penalties in an individual haul of 17 points.
The England fly-half and man of the match, along with Vunipola, was replaced in the final quarter but by that point Saracens were already beyond reach.
Chris Ashton, George Kruis, Jacques Burger and Marcelo Bosch also ran in tries in a resounding victory that restores them to the summit of the Premiership table replacing Northampton, who were defeated by Sale Sharks.
Karl Dickson and Sam Smith crossed for Quins, who were spirited but outgunned in all departments and have only five matches left to force their way into play-off contention.
A brutal opening five minutes are sure to interest the citing officer with Nick Kennedy’s uppercut on Steve Borthwick trumped by a dangerous tackle on David Strettle.
Strettle was struck by a swinging arm from Maurie Fa’asavalu and then hit his head on the Wembley turf, resulting in several minutes of treatment before being carried off on a stretcher.
Harlequins’ defeat was a further blow to their hopeof a top-four finish. The four points which separate them from the elite zone will increase if Leicester defeat Exeter today. Meanwhile, Sale’s shock 19-6 win at home to Northampton, who had begun the day as league leaders, kept their hopes of a top-four finish alive.
Saints made seven changes to the team that lost to Exeter in the LV= Cup final and included hooker Dylan Hartley, lock Courtney Lawes, winger George North and centre Luther Burrell following Six Nations duty with England.
Nevertheless, they struggled to find a way through the Sharks defensive line as they were restricted to just two goals from Will Hooley.
Sharks, on the other hand, showed a lot of attacking enterprise in the first half, with tries from Mark Cueto, Marc Jones and Tom Brady sealing the win, both sides then failing to score a single point during the second period.
Despite the victory, Sale director of rugby Steve Diamond was reluctant to talk up his club’s hopes of reaching the top four. He said: “Does the win give us more ambition? No, not really. This time last year we were scrapping it out for our lives and this year we’re just glad to be in mid-table.
“Do I think top four is achievable? I’m not being coy but we see how it is every week and try to challenge the lads to get up for it. The one thing we have got, and what helped us last year, is togetherness. We went through it last year and we had to scrap it out and it’s served us well, and in tight games like today you need that resolve.”
Elsewhere, Gloucester defeated Newcastle 40-33 in a pulsating match at Kingsholm in which both sides ran in five tries. Rob Cook was the star man for the home side, scoring three tries and two penalties in a personal haul of 20 points.
Despite Gloucester’s James Hudson being sin-binned early for illegally ploughing into the back of a Newcastle attacking ruck, they led 17-7 at half-time.
However, Falcons proved difficult to shake off, as tries by George McGuigan, Alex Tait, Andy Saull and Noah Cato, following Chris York’s first-half touchdown, earned the visitors their bonuspoint.
But tries by Sioni Kalamafoni, James Hudson, Mike Tindall and Jonny May for Gloucester – added to Cook’s brace – were enough to ensure victory.
Yesterday’s attendance of 83,889 for the Saracens-Harlequins match at Wembley exceeded the previous world record for a club rugby match – 83,671 – which was set when the same two sides clashed at Wembley in March 2012. On that occasion, Saracens won 24-19.