Aviva Premiership Round 7 – Twickenham Stadium, Sunday 27th December 2015 – Harlequins 39 Gloucester 39 [3 league points each: 2 for the draw, 1 each for scoring 4 tries].
Today – whilst leaving Rust readers who have either watched the game live on BT Sport and/or who read newspaper reports to form their own views – we publish posts by two of our correspondents giving their personal perspectives on the game.
Mayhem – complete mayhem from start to finish – descended last night as what was called ‘Big Game 8’ (Harlequins’ grandiose attempt to associate with America’s NFL Superbowl final its now annual move across the road to Twickers for a festive Aviva Premiership game) provided an extraordinary spectacle for some 70,000 attending and those television viewers watching at home. Ten tries in all – five for each side – and the third highest-scoring draw in Premiership history injected a sizeable shot of intensity and adrenalin into the veins of what otherwise might have been a totally soporific festive weekend.
In some respects it was a shot in the arm for the sport of rugby union, which is building a spectator base recently given added impetus by the feel-good factor arising from the Rugby World Cup but still remains way behind football in terms of popularity and probably always will.
It was my third-watched televised Premiership game of the weekend and it was indicative that at both Saturday’s London Irish v Northampton Saints clash in Reading and yesterday’s earlier Wasps v Saracens match in Coventry (which boasted a crowd of 21,000) that there were swathes of empty seats in what in real-life are football stadia.
For the neutrals this was a terrific advert for the sport, an open all-action game in which the size of the crowd, the effort that had gone into making the occasion a special event, the opportunity it presented for players involved with reasonable hopes of catching the eye of new England head coach Eddie Jones as he prepares to announce his first Six Nations squad on 13th January to state their case, and indeed the straightforward league table importance of the contest, all played their part.
Whilst the drawn nature of the game left both clubs’ coaches, players and supporters wallowing in frustrated anti-climax at their respective ‘what might have beens’, in truth it represented a fair reflection of what happened on the pitch. As the score suggests, either side might easily have won – indeed, Quins’ Nick Evans was inches wide with a quite-gettable last-minute drop goal attempt almost in front of the posts – but frankly neither side really deserved to either win or lose.
That said, Gloucester will probably feel with justification that they came away with most of the honours. They arrived as underdogs – Quins were ‘plus 7 points’ favourites in the betting – with a poor record this season on the road. They came out of the traps with great energy and positivity and kept the intensity high throughout. They certainly hadn’t come to lie down and let the home side wash over them.
A measure of their intent was that Matt Kvesic, possibly vying for a place in the England squad as a genuine 7, deservedly won the ‘Man of the Match’ award by outshining Clifford and Robshaw playing opposite him at the breakdown.
Although Quins began with great confidence, running through five or six phases straight from the kick-off – I’d estimate that the overall game’s possession stats were not far short of 70:30 in their favour – it was Gloucester who scored first about five minutes in, via a turnover mix-up on the halfway line and a kick-ahead opportunity that fortuitously fell to their Kiwi second-rower Jeremy Thrush who then won a foot race to the line.
It was an early omen of how the match would unfold. Gloucester knuckled down, defended like crazy and took every opportunity that came their way, whether presented by sheer chance, engineered by themselves, or gifted by Quins.
In contrast, perhaps subconsciously affected by the pre-match hype and expectation, the home side tried to press the ‘all-singing, all dancing’ button at every opportunity and in the final analysis, probably ended up by over-playing. Worse, by committing everything to attack, they left themselves exposed at the back – not perhaps the best tactic when in all they gifted Gloucester three interception tries, not counting the ‘turnover’ first effort referred to above.
So there you have it. Wonderful ‘harem-scarem’ entertainment from the first blow of referee Wayne Barnes’ whistle to the last, some great rugby played by both teams and also, in Quins’ case particularly, some pretty indifferent defence at times.
What’s not to like?
None of us in the pub afterwards could quite believe what we had witnessed. Everything was set up for a Quins victory against a Gloucester team that had been misfiring all season and (at worst) might have been expected, by sheer effort and desperation, to somehow stay in contact for say up to the 60-minute mark but then inevitably fade away under the relentless pressure of our new-look multi-coloured pack and star-studded back line – featuring Welsh superstar Jamie Roberts making his Premiership debut – to leave us with a comfortable victory.
In the event this was a reversion to the Quins weakness of old, whereby we tend to play ‘up’ or ‘down’ to match the standard of our opposition.
It also just goes to show you should never count your chickens.
To be totally honest, there was good and bad wherever you looked. Quins captain Danny Care had filled the morning newspapers with his hopes to impress Eddie Jones by his all-action style, ability to raise the tempo and demonstrate that one of his perceived weaknesses (his kicking game) was not one. Well, he certainly played spectacularly well at times – he scored a ‘sniping’ try under the posts, his kicking was outstanding – yet at others he set off like a headless chicken and he was personally at fault for one try in firing out a long pass that was gratefully intercepted by Henry Trinder for a fifty-yard jog to the Quins line.
All five of Gloucester’s tries were presented to them on a plate.
Apart from the ‘bad luck plus a turnover’ first, the next three were straightforwardly gifted interceptions and the last – a sixty-yard weaving solo gallop by Gloucester full back Rob Cook for which, by my count, no fewer than eight Quins effectively waved him through – was, depending upon which team you supported, either ‘one of the great Premiership tries of the past two seasons’ or (if you were a Quins fan) ‘the most pathetic display of defence since the loss of Singapore in WW2’.
Quins should have won this game at a canter. They had lashing more fire power in their locker than the opposition but seemed to have adopted the Kevin Keegan (as manager of Newcastle) approach [“You score four, we’ll score five …”], the only trouble last night being that Gloucester scored five first to secure a 10-point lead with ten minutes to go and we were then lucky to catch up and then gain the opportunity to snatch a last-minute victory, which Nick Evans of all people fluffed.
In the post-match interview Conor O’Shea said he’d told the boys in the changing room after the game that “That was the first time I’ve seen Harlequins beat the Harlequins”, by which he was referring to the catalogue of errors and the gifted tries we gave away despite also dominating possession and playing brilliantly at times.
The rollercoaster ride continues, folks!
Still, if you think about it, I suppose we can be thankful for small mercies. It could so easily have been worse. At least we came back from ten points down to draw at the death.