Saturday 6th November 2018: Gallagher Premiership Round 6: Harlequins v Saracens at The Stoop, kick-off 7.30pm: Result – Harlequins 20 Saracens 25: League points – Harlequins 1 losing bonus point, Saracens 4 points for the victory: new League Table positions – Saracens 2nd (6 wins from 6 games) on 29 points, Harlequins 6th (2 wins, 4 losses) on 14 points.
Last night (as a rugby fan rather than any longer a diehard home team supporter) I settled in to watch my first ‘live’ Harlequins match of the season on BT Sport for two reasons: I had the free time to do so and the fact it was against Saracens, reigning Premiership champions and already – along with Exeter Chiefs – one of the two leading contenders for the title this term.
It was also, though it is a slight geographical stretch to say it because the visitors’ home ground is in Hendon, the nearest thing there is these days to a Premiership London derby. And there is ‘form’ between the two clubs in the sense that, in recent times (as was mentioned with relish in commentary) if Saracens are metaphorically Superman then Quins have been their nearest to kryptonite opposition.
Added to which Quins’ new head coach Paul Gustard, most recently employed as England defence supremo, was previously a former long-time Saracens player and then coach.
All the ingredients then for another grudge match as was in evidence from the get-go and it was just minutes before referee Luke Pearce – who had an excellent overall game – twice had to call respective captains Chris Robshaw and Owen Farrell aside for headmasterly chats about the fearsome physicality, confrontations, back-chatting and repeated outbreaks of ‘hangbags’ amongst the packs.
No doubt Pearce, who was clearly in no mood to take any nonsense, was motivated in part by the knowledge that this game was the first this season to be broadcast live in North America where rugby union is currently mounting a major missionary campaign to develop the game.
Some of our Yankee cousins might have moved to tune in because of the appearance in the Quins’ centre pairing of former NFL player Paul Lasike but sadly, about a quarter of an hour into proceedings, he got his bonce on the wrong side in attempting a head-on tackle on Saracens giant lock Australian Will Skelton (6 feet 8 inches and 20 stone – down from the 23 at which he tipped the scales when reporting for pre-season training) and came off distinctly second best.
Things cooled down a notch during the subsequent ten minutes as a dozen medics sprinted onto the field to first stabalise the stricken and kayoed American and then cart him off on a stretcher.
I shall not here describe the match in detail for the usual reasons.
Suffice it to record that Quins were ‘up for it’, determined through a combination of natural pumped-up adrenalin at the prospect of the task at hand, some desperation perhaps and also the fact that it was full back Mike Brown’s 300th and scrum half Danny Care’s 250th start for the club, to demonstrate that, if they were going to go down to their formidable visitors in front of a packed-to-the-rafters Stoop on a cold night featuring copious driving wind and rain, to do so with all guns blazing.
It was a spell-binding, no quarter given and compelling encounter in which – with a overall ‘possession’ statistic of only about 27% of the ball throughout the game – the home side held the lead for 80% of the action, albeit reduced to feeding off scraps and playing with a dynamism and defensive commitment that almost defied belief.
Since the game I’ve been struggling to flick through the rusty vaults of my fading memory in an attempt to recall a more epic Quins or indeed Premiership match and cannot identify one.
That’s not to say there haven’t been a treasure-chestful of potential candidates, just that as I type none come to mind at all, or is it as vividly, as last night’s clash.
At the end of the day, of course, the better team nicked the victory and on the balance of play it was deserved despite the fact the result was in doubt to the final whistle.
However, I tell you this, afterwards the Sarries’ players, supporters and coaching staff all knew that they’d been in a hell of a match. And in the post-match television interviews, to their credit – without exception – they acknowledged it.