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At least I was there

Sunday 19th November 2017: Premiership Rugby, Round 8: Exeter Chiefs v Harlequins at Sandy Park: Result – Exeter Chiefs 31 Harlequins 17 (Exeter four-try bonus point win): Premiership table after Round 8 – Exeter Chiefs 1st on 31 points, Harlequins 7th on 20 points.

My weekend just past was an instance of killing two birds with one stone, if that is the right phrase in circumstances where I went to stay in Somerset with a pair of old work colleagues and – at their invitation – also attend Quins’ away defeat yesterday against the Chiefs.

I had previously only visited Sandy Park, the Chief’s home ground just off the M5, once – during the heady days of the 2011/2012 season, the year of Quins’ solitary win of the Premiership title.

Under the at-the-time inspiring leadership of head coach Conor O’Shea, Quins had gradually climbed out of (some of) the mire and ignominy of their 2009 ‘Bloodgate’ scandal.

Through one of those welcome comings-together that sometimes happen in all team sports – viz. a random group of outstanding academy kids on the up (plus, of course, a few quality old wise heads and excellent mercenaries), some excellent coaching and a club playing philosophy that proved entertaining and highly effective – somehow, against all the odds, the club managed to build momentum enough in three short seasons to annexe the blue riband of English rugby union.

This was a long time ago, of course (things are very different these days) but for everyone connected with Quins the collective experience of going from the depths of Bloodgate and its aftermath to Everest-like pinnacle of the 2011/2012 season will always represent one of the highlights of their lives.

That is certainly the case for me.

Which partly explains why, one dark evening in the spring of 2012, without quite appreciating in advance the journey it would entail, I had jumped into my car and drove to the outer edges of the British Empire and civilisation in order to support Quins’ youngsters as they attempted to gain silverware in the Final of the Premiership’s A League competition against Exeter Chiefs at Sandy Park.

You might call this poetic justice, dear readers, but the expedition did not end in yet one more fairy tale-like staging post on our triumphant march to Twickenham Stadium and the end-of-season Premiership triumph on 26th May that year.

Instead we lost comprehensively by a margin of something like 27-5 and, immediately after the match – having travelled all that way solo, and I promise this was nothing to do with a sense of ‘sour grapes’ at the result – I opted simply to trudge to the car park and drive straight home again.

Each way the journey took me the best part of four and a half hours, partly because of the filthy weather.

On the way home at the dead of night I had to negotiate one of the worst monsoon storms I have ever experienced, let alone driven through. Upon several occasions I was in a procession of concentrated traffic, all moving carefully at no more than 40 mph with window wipers going nineteen-to-the-dozen, to the point where the whole enterprise seemed borderline absurd.

Ah – but to return to yesterday’s match.

At some point between May 2012 and 2015 my former work colleagues had decided to decamp from London and move to the depths of Dorset. I had previously been to visit them twice down in their wilderness and had a lot of fun, so when the invitation to attend this match was extended to me, I took very little persuading to accept.

I went down a day early (Saturday) so that I could join in with the experience of a country pub lunch and watching England play Australia on the television in a crowded and noisy lounge bar full of West Country accents.

The country pub lunch was repeated, albeit at a different pub, yesterday and then we made our way to the driveway of a gentleman who lived near to Sandy Park and allowed ‘people in the know’ to park in it for a £10 note slipped into his sweaty hand, no HMRC questions asked. (My host was ‘someone in the know’ because this is the type of thing he makes it his business to be).

Thereafter a short group amble took us to Sandy Park itself and the game.

In advance there had not been a pundit or supporter of either team predicting anything but a home victory – the only aspect of speculation being that of how comfortable a win it would be.

I shall leave my readers to skim through the newspaper reports if they wish to learn how the match progressed.

From my angle, being a sole Quins supporter surrounded by a sea of home equivalents, I gained a healthy degree of satisfaction from the loud and persistent exasperation expressed around me at the Chiefs’ alleged descent into an open, chuck-the-ball-about, game.

Make no mistake, Exeter – the reigning Premiership Champions let us not forget – are a tough, no-nonsense, hard-nosed, efficient and powerful outfit who very rarely lose at Sandy Park.

Beforehand I had figured that a loss by less than 15 points would amount to a bit of a moral victory for Quins, not well known for their moral fibre when playing away. But – to be fair to our boys – they had undoubtedly come to ‘give it a go’ and there was a certain joy to be had in beholding the home team being dragged against their will into a harem-scarem free-for-all.

WHAT is going on?” screamed my host at regular intervals to anyone who nearby would listen, referring the Keystone Cops-like chaos taking place on the pitch.

Afterwards I reflected to myself that I had be part of a thoroughly rewarding and enjoyable day – indeed weekend.

Back to normality now, then.


About Derek Williams

A recently-retired actuary, the long-suffering Derek has been a Quins fan for the best part of three decades. More Posts