Saturday 13th January 2018: European Rugby Champions Cup (Pool Stage): Pool 1 (teams – La Rochelle, Ulster, Harlequins, Wasps): Round 5 – Harlequins v Wasps at the Stoop, kick-off 5.30pm: Result – Harlequins 33 Wasps 28: consequences – Harlequins already out of the competition, Wasps now almost certainly so but still with a theoretical chance of progressing.
[As per usual, if Rust readers wish to learn details of this match they should read a newspaper or website report rather than what follows.]
Regular visitors to this column will know that – borne of long-suffering depression brought on by Harlequins’ surfeit of abject performances and rampant inconsistency, plus sheer frustration on my part at their lack of both playing and corporate progress – at the end of last season I not decided not to renew my Quins season ticket but in future follow their fortunes only via television.
To be frank, I had effectively taken the view that since the club didn’t seem to be interested in getting its act together, I had better things to do with my time and money.
You know the back-story. Quins have a long and enviable history and reputation as an illustrious elite English club which has always tried to play attractive attacking rugby, has an excellent record in one-off games and cup competitions (rather than leagues) and a slight tendency to play brilliantly one week and rubbish the next.
Its fans are never quite sure what’s going to happen and yet even that is part of the fun – or is it the strain and stress that comes with the territory? – of being a Quins supporter.
Last night was a perfect case in point.
After a fingernail-biting late supreme effort in 2016/2017 Quins just bagged sixth and last place in the Premiership and therefore a berth in this season’s European Rugby Champions Cup.
They might as well have not bothered. They lost their first four games in the Pool stage and therefore were already out of the competition before last night’s outing.
In contrast arch (formerly London derby) rivals Wasps – now moved to Coventry and half a dozen places higher in the Premiership this season – only needed a bonus point win to ensure their progress to the knockout stage.
Non-partisan onlookers might have assumed that Quins would be switched-off for this game – they had nothing to play for in the competition – and that Wasps were a banker-bet to win … the main additional interest being in whether they could gain the four-try bonus point that would guarantee them safe passage with one more Pool game still to go.
Wasps started great. Straight from the off they blitzed out to a 21-0 (three try) lead. They’d played some great rugby, retained the ball well and were virtually home and hosed after only half an hour.
In contrast, Quins were flaffing about. They were huffing and puffing but getting nowhere.
By then this particular Quins fan had already gone off to the kitchen to heat up his recently-bought quality fish soup, applied the rouille to the provided garlic croutons, opened the newspapers purchased in the morning but so far not read … and settled down for his evening, now only half-watching events unfolding on his sitting-room television.
Suddenly, something happened – I cannot put my finger exactly what.
In a trice, Quins just ‘clicked’. Stuff they’d been trying before that had somehow not quite come off suddenly did.
Part of it was that the game opened up into complete chaos and mayhem. Classic Quins territory.
I sat up and took notice. If things continued like this, it was going to end one of only two ways – either Wasps were going to win by somewhere between 50 and 70 points, or (against the odds) Quins were going to go down fighting, hopefully graduating to a degree of respectability via scoring two or three tries of their own.
I do not think that the third possibility – i.e. that Quins might actually secure an epic win to rank somewhere amongst their greatest – ever crossed any onlooker’s mind.
With four minutes to go, Wasps James Haskell was sent off for a no arms shoulder-charge direct to the head of Quins and Wales centre Jamie Roberts.
Even then Wasps remained in front 28-26 and still looked ‘on’ for the bonus point victory (albeit a squeaky bum-time one).
And then Quins back-rower James Chisholm bulldozed over for a last-minute try, converted by Quins fly-half academy wonder-kid Marcus Smith – still only 18 but given his first-ever professional contract (four and a half years, reputedly worth £230,000 per annum) earlier this week – who had come off the bench to transform Quins attack in last quarter of an hour.
The viewing experience almost made me regret my “I’m out of here!” decisions at the end of last season.