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Harlequins 16-10 Sale: Smith leads Quins to victory in the first game after a five-month break

Unmasked at last, rugby finally stumbled into its new normal sanitised, crowdless and sweary but with several strings attached.

At times sloppy, at others eerie, but with pangs of aggression, intensity and no little skill it was hardly what we are used to – but then again, what is?

Harlequins won the first Premiership game for 22 weeks against Sale Sharks, who must have had tinnitus by the end after giving away 19 penalties, and a sport resumed.

That is it now – after the famine, the feast. Rugby now for every week of the year until next August when the Lions learn their fate against South Africa, a veritable banquet of seemingly never-ending feasts that will no doubt leave players unhealthily exposed to the sport’s allergies.

But Friday night’s first bite was a happy escape from world’s ills – although the Sharks will gnash teeth at their defeat.

The second-placed side before lockdown were outdone by a gritty Quins defence, kicks from the clever Marcus Smith and a Scott Baldwin try.

Sale boss Steve Diamond commented: ‘We’re probably delighted to come away with a bonus point. My team usually gives away seven or eight penalties, so to give away 19 was disappointing. We need some clarity.

‘We were shooting blanks. It was a strange night but we’ve got to get used to it.’

Paul Gustard hailed his fly-half: ‘Marcus wants to be the best player in the world and is unashamed in his desire and ambition. He’s still only a 21-year-old kid and managed the field so well.’

League CEO Darren Childs’ fairly naïve vision was to be first back on television. More like one of the last – 159 days after the last match, the Premiership belatedly returned in near silence.

Sale emerged from the ‘Mike Brown’ bar on the far side of the ground wearing ‘Rugby Against Racism’ t-shirts, and Quins came from the tunnel opposite, as flames rose to fire up almost no one inside the ground.

After a pause to honour the NHS and those that have died from coronavirus, before which you could hear the clatter of seats as those in attendance stood, there was a brief tribute to equality.

Quins took a knee as one, and Sale lined up.

All their South Africans chose to stay standing – including World Cup winners Lood de Jager and Faf de Klerk, as well as Manu Tuilagi – but Tom Curry, Marland Yarde, Sam Hill and Simon Hammersley knelt. Whatever their individual beliefs it sent a muddled message.

Then the rugby, which brought plenty of handling errors and breakdown penalties – the first of which brought Smith three easy points.

Sale struggled with the stricter enforcement around the rucks, and Quins took advantage. Smith knocked the next penalty over just before the new 20-minute water break. By then Sharks were 8-0 down on penalties and 6-0 behind on the scoreboard.

There was much entertainment tuning in to the unveiled din of a top-flight match.

From Diamond’s ‘that’s all we’ve f****** practised all year!’ laments, to every Harlequins-related attendee – whether board member or bottle holder – appealing for the tiniest of infringements there might have been empty stands but there was no shortage of sound.

But all was quiet when Smith hit a third penalty of the half as rain started to fall.

Right on half-time Sale should have scored. They hammered the Quins line but Tuilagi dropped right by the posts.

Inconceivably Rob du Preez missed his second kick of the night from right in front.

Curiously, it took forever for Sale to use their new wrecking-ball Tuilagi – but it was when disguising him best that they scored.

A decoy line gave space for Byron McGuigan to score out wide five minutes after the resumption. This time du Preez kicked the conversion.

The South African was rusty. His next major involvement saw him kick cross-field on his own line straight to Brown, on a first outing since last November, who almost scored but was denied illegally by opposite number Hammersley.

After he was sin-binned Quins piled over from the resulting lineout, Welsh hooker Baldwin scored and Smith converted.

AJ MacGinty took Sale within six with a penalty with 10 minutes to go, but Quins held on.

It was hardly joyous or spectacular but at least, for an evening, it was refreshing to see another sport return.

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