Sunday 21st January 2018 – European Champions Cup Pool 1; La Rochelle v Harlequins at Stade Marcel Deflandre: La Rochelle 16 Harlequins 7. Final Pool 1 positions: La Rochelle 20 points; Wasps 17; Ulster 17; Harlequins 7.
And so Harlequins ended their 2017-2018 ERCC campaign as bottom of Pool 1, having played their last two matches – against Wasps at home and La Rochelle away – knowing that that they were already doomed. The only upside is that whereas over the years many clubs in this position would have ‘given up’ and – one eye on saving their leading players for domestic league struggles to come – played their reserves and made only token efforts at respectability, instead Quins went for broke, put out the very best sides they could and went out of the competition with their heads held high.
Last week they came from 0-21 down to beat Wasps 33-28 at the death and yesterday, against the ‘white orcs on steroids’ [description copyright owned by New Zealand rugby scribe Michael Laws after England had beaten the All Black 15-13 in June 2003 on their way to World Cup glory that year in Australia] of La Rochelle in dreadful, Atlantic near-squall, conditions they played outstandingly well to put the frighteners on the home side and its wonderfully-partisan crowd in the second half.
Having been a pretty average side relegated to the division below the Top 14 (the French equivalent of the English Premiership) four years ago, they regained Top 14 status in the 2014-2015 season after taking on board a substantial cash injection and an ambitious five year plan to become a serious European force.
They’ve acquired a slate of massive heavy-duty Southern Hemisphere and other mercenaries – and not just amongst the forwards – with which to leaven their home-grown talent and under coaches Patrice Colazzo and Xavier Garbajosa have battered their way to national prominence with a combination of grizzled forward grunt and an all-out attacking strategy. The best or most appropriate description I can give of their style of play is that it is like watching Quins at their very best as executed by monsters – i.e. superbly-fit, direct-running, forward-sized backs carving their way upfield at speed with constant support (often forwards) coming up behind.
They’re riding high in the Top 14 at the moment and looked like potential winners of the European Champions Cup winners this season during their opening Pool 1 fixtures during the autumn.
The irony, however, is that the old spectre of the stereotypical view of French team being unable to play away from home in Europe suddenly came over the horizon in the second half of the Pool campaign.
Ryan Lamb, the former Gloucester, London Irish, Northampton, Leicester Tigers and Worcester Premiership player who played five times for England Saxons (the second team) but never won a full cap, is now 31 and a La Rochelle squad player.
He wasn’t picked for their matchday 23 yesterday but was instead doing media work for Sky Sports who were covering the game live – presumably chosen for this temporary post because he was a La Rochelle player with the twin advantages of being someone the UK fans would recognise and could speak passable English.
Interviewed before the match, he was asked about the potential effect of the ‘enclosing weather’ which was getting more troublesome by the minute as the bitterly cold wind and rain swept in.
He began by saying that the home team were expecting Quins to come at them in the first twenty minutes but that – once they had weathered that onslaught from the ‘nothing to win’ visitors – he confidently expected the La Rochelle juggernaut to take control, blow Quins away, and go on to take the desired four-try bonus point victory that would make them one of the top four Pool stage finishers that were guaranteed a home quarter-final in the next (knockout) stage in front of what was their 29th consecutive home match full house.
The interviewer then lobbed up a regulation supplementary “And if conditions worsen, what’s the Plan B?”
Lamb responded with a semi-flippant “… We don’t have a Plan B”.
The reply was a chicken that nearly came home to roost. The Sky pundits immediately picked it up in their following pre-match analysis. Their line was that La Rochelle had begun their European campaign obliterating their opponents with their seemingly unstoppable hard-nosed dynamism but more recently had come unstuck on the road and occasionally and inexplicably faltered. It was suggested that maybe Lamb had inadvertently stumbled upon their Achilles heel.
La Rochelle began like supermen. They kicked off, soon turned-over the ball and then played nearly four minutes without losing possession – waves of massive men punching huge holes in midfield and out wide. Quins might have been bailing water out of their in-danger-of-being-swamped vessel at nineteen-to-the-dozen (at elite level these days all teams have efficient defensive strategies) but the sea of homers breaking over the gunwales looked positively overwhelming.
After twenty-five minutes the possession stats were La Rochelle 81%, Quins 19% and the home side soon became two unconverted tries and a penalty (13-0) up, with the bonus point fourth try seemingly on the cards by half-time.
Somehow, as much by sheer good fortune as anything else Quins hung on without conceding anything more by the break.
Quins came out with nothing to lose in a good way.
They gained some sustained possession – their first in the contest – kicked to the corners and ‘went for it’.
Suddenly Danny Care sniped over for a converted try beside the posts. Quins’ tails were up. La Rochelle seemed stunned by the failure of the visitors to capitulate. Their collective confidence disintegrated, they lost their way and, long before the end, were playing like a dispirited rabble.
Stuart Barnes, in the commentary box, could scarcely believe what he was seeing – he described Quins’ performance as outstanding and regularly returned to the dogma-of-the-day that the home team had no Plan B (which, I might add, I’m sure Ryan Lamb had originally intended as a positive).
As the last few stalemate minutes ticked away in the mist and rain, Barnes predicted that, far from being a favourite to win the Cup – their failure to land their widely-anticipated bonus point victory now meaning that in the knock-out quarter-final stage they’d be playing away against the Welsh team Scarlets – La Rochelle were near certainties to exit the competition in their next outing.
So – looking on the bright side – in their last two games in this season’s European Champions Cup, Quins have managed not only first to completely foul-up Wasps’ chances of progressing but then also probably do for La Rochelle’s as well.
Things are looking up!