Sunday 10th December 2017: European Champions Cup 2017/2018: Pool 1 (La Rochelle; Harlequins; Wasps; Ulster) Round 3 match – Harlequins v Ulster at the Stoop, kick-off 1.00pm: Result: Harlequins 5 Ulster 17: Pool positions after Round 3 – Ulster 2nd on 8 points, Harlequins fourth (bottom) on 1 point. Harlequins now eliminated from the Cup competition as they cannot now possibly progress in first or second place out of their Pool.
So that’s it, then: Quins yesterday effectively ended their first ‘journey’ back in European Rugby’s premier competition at the earliest possible opportunity – this after two seasons of not qualifying for it by failing to finish in the English Premiership’s top six – by suffering their third successive Pool game defeat.
Although there is no real disgrace in this (Northampton Saints, Glasgow Warriors, Benneton and Racing 92 are effectively in the same position, whilst Wasps, Leicester Tigers, Ospreys and Scarlets could also be hovering over the trap door after their next Pool matches) – at the distinct risk of beginning to sound just like one of endless queue of depressed and angry mid-table or below Premiership football fans who contribute to Radio Five’s 606 phone-in programme – the truth is that Quins are currently way off where they need to be to cope with the exponentially-increasing demands and pressure of modern elite European club rugby.
Let’s just reheat some basic facts of life.
In the realpolitik world of rugby union – complete with all its madcap rules and regulations on who can qualify to play when for which country, the skewed balance of power between the national unions and major clubs (most often in favour of the latter) and the fact that, by conspiratorial convention between regulators, coaches and players, in practice referees no longer officiate to the letter of several laws of the game – life is very tough indeed.
Any European rugby team with aspirations to sit at the Northern Hemisphere’s metaphorical club top table [only 12 seats available, folks, in my jaundiced opinion if you’re asking] requires near-limitless financial resources, ready access to the very best players becoming contract-free around the world, a squad of 40-plus players capable of holding their own in the first team at the drop of a hat, a large slice of luck as regards injuries and disciplinary suspensions … all added to a clear sense of business vision and forward-thinking .. together with large helpings of bloody-mindedness, drive, determination and communal esprit de corps from top to bottom on the part of their executives, administrators, supporters and coaching staff.
Few rugby clubs are fortunate enough to ever have more than a fleeting acquaintance with a coming-together of all of those simultaneously and, in England, the Harlequins certainly never have. If good intentions ever counted for anything, of course, they’d be the biggest club in the world – but then so would virtually every club in England’s rugby third and fourth tiers still living from hand to mouth.
It was only about eighteen months ago [maybe a bit longer, my sense of time these days is faulty] that David Ellis, Quins’ chief executive officer, gave an interview at a time when English Premiership clubs were beginning to make tentative steps towards playing Premiership matches in North America – and indeed Quins had played a televised match against the American national team – as a means of spreading the rugby word.
At one point he aired the line that Quins intended to develop itself into one of the world’s great sporting brands.
At the time this made for a brave and pleasant sound-bite – and perhaps in the minds of any listening non-rugby-centric sports fans the very mention of the name Harlequins, one of the most widely-recognised club nomenclatures in rugby union, might have lent a certain potential weight/credibility to the stated ambition – but it was nothing but hot air (almost to the point of absurdity and laughter as far as Quins fans were concerned).
These days Quins are barely the second-biggest fish in their local pond (London), never mind being a force in the English Premiership on a national level. Granted, they rank ahead of London Irish, rooted to the Premiership basement with 9 consecutive league losses (since the first day of the season on which, naturally, they just happened to beat Quins), but permanently behind Saracens.
Our lads in the quartered-coloured jerseys would be behind Wasps as well, of course, but for the fact that two seasons ago Wasps moved to Coventry and therefore lost the right to call themselves a London club.
A couple of weeks ago Quins made a big announcement about beginning consultations in the New Year towards developing a new bigger stadium as a means to taking the club forward – it wasn’t quite clear to me whether this was to be an intended enhanced development of the Stoop or a completely new stadium somewhere else.
My point is, this is a typical Quins (slightly cack-handed) initiative. Plenty of good intentions and proud, noble-sounding hot air. But when you look at the playing side of things – not least the coaching set-up – Quins have been marking time (and therefore going backwards) ever since they won the Premiership title in 2012. In that context, and as things stand given the uniformly mediocre quality of the club’s executives from top to bottom, the average Quins fan like me can be forgiven for having little confidence that a top-half Premiership table finish can be achieved in the near future, still less a new stadium or indeed world domination.
I watched yesterday’s game live on television and this was a thoroughly wasted couple of hours of my time – I cannot speak for those who turned up at the Stoop – largely because of the weather.
Earlier I had awoken and nipped across the road to collect my Sunday newspapers at my usual hour and found myself in a scene from It’s A Wonderful Life – a veritable heavy snow shower with flakes doing their best to settle.
It wasn’t the players’ fault but the game resembled an elite rugby cup tie in name only. The conditions were not unplayable (all concerned went through the motions as best they could) but perhaps a rational referee might have declared them so … and thus allowed the assembled full house to get on with their Christmas shopping chores or whatever.
I don’t know what the answer is as regards the vagaries of the weather. Perhaps all English Premiership rugby grounds should be required to add retractable roofs to their stadia [that’s when when they’ve achieved sporting brand world recognition to rank alongside Manchester City of course] so that it cannot spoil a ‘not-at-all-cheap’ paid-for sporting contest by turning it into a lottery, or rather a proper rugger game in name only.
Because that is what I watched yesterday.