LONDON (AFP) – Northampton director of rugby Jim Mallinder hailed the "magnificent" performance of captain Dylan Hartley as the hooker led the Saints to a 38-11 win over Exeter in their opening English Premiership fixture of the new season on Saturday.
England hooker Hartley missed all of Northampton's pre-season fixtures after receiving an 11-week ban for verbally abusing referee Wayne Barnes during last term's Premiership final defeat by Leicester.
It was not the first time New Zealand-born Hartley had been in disciplinary trouble but he put those problems to one side on Saturday, scoring the first of Northampton's five tries after just two minutes.
"I thought he was magnificent today (Saturday)," Mallinder said of Hartley.
"Dylan put in a determined performance today. There has been a lot of talk about him after what happened, but all he can do is play and show what he can do on the field.
"At half-time when we looked at the stats it showed he had covered the most metres in our team.
"He has worked very hard during the summer, he has had no pre-season games, so to come in and play like that shows what sort of player he is. He is our leader because he plays and leads by example."
In the London double-header at Twickenham, Harlequins edged out capital rivals Wasps 16-15 after Wasps's Andy Goode saw the final kick of the match, a potentially match-winning conversion following Tom Palmer's try after the final buzzer, come back off the post.
"I thought Goodey would get it," said Harlequins and England captain Chris Robshaw. "He is a cool lad and a very good penalty taker. So we were worried he might do it for them. Thankfully, he missed."
Wasps' director of Rugby Dai Young added: "Andy will win us more games than he loses. It is the curse of the kicker. You are either hero or zero."
Trailing 10-3 at the break following England lock Joe Launchbury's first-minute try, Harlequins thought they'd sealed victory when their replacement scrum-half Karl Dickson sold the Wasps defence a dummy and crossed for a try converted by Nick Evans.
But Wasps came charging back and Goode's quick pass allowed Palmer to step inside Quins wingers Ugo Monye and Ben Sackey to cross the line and give his fly-half the chance to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, only to see the width of a post agonisingly deny the nominal hosts a dramatic win.
In the other half of the London double-header, Saracens -- champions in 2011 -- overpowered London Irish 42-20.
Brothers Mako and Billy Vunipola starred for Sarries, with Mako and England wing Chris Ashton scoring tries following a first-half double by promising hooker Jamie George.
"You can see their quality on the ball and in that second half things opened up a little bit," Saracens boss Mark McCall said of the Vunipolas, both England forwards, who were playing their first Sarries match together following younger brother Billy's pre-season move from Wasps.
Meanwhile Sale, who won just seven out of 22 league games last season, started the new campaign with a surprise 22-16 victory at Gloucester.
Sale were 19-3 ahead in the 52nd minute after tries by England wing Mark Cueto and centre Andy Forysth, with fly-half Nick MacLeod and full-back Tom Arscott kicking three penalties between them.
They then weathered a Gloucester recovery and afterwards delighted Sale boss Steve Diamond said: "Last year is another season. We held on in the second half but that is the character we showed in the latter half of last year where we won seven or eight of the games we played."
Leicester begin their title defence at home to Worcester on Sunday, with Bath having thrashed Newcastle 21-0 on Friday.