The Stoop, Saturday 19th December: Harlequins 59 Calvisano 7 (European Challenge Cup).
Rugby Calvisano S.R.L. is a professional rugby club hailing from the province of Brescia in Lombary which currently operates in Italy’s National Championship of Excellence and managed to qualify to play in this season’s European Challenge Cup.
Last weekend – as part of the traditional ‘home and away’ double-header European fixtures – they hosted the men in multi-coloured quartered shirts. In front of a crowd estimated by one Quins fan who was present at about 1,500, on that occasion they were on the wrong end of a 10-50 result in sufficiently foggy conditions that, from midway through the second half, it was apparently impossible to make out any action taking place on the far side of the pitch.
Yesterday Calvisano had travelled to south-west London for the return fixture accompanied by some three hundred or so die-hard fans who did their enthusiastic level best to maintain some noisy encouragement to their outgunned and outclassed troops. To be honest I felt almost sorry for them. Their playing squad – judging at least by their names – for the most part seemed to be of native origin rather than composed of hired-in Pacific Islander mercenaries. They looked fit – lean and muscular in the back division, suitably squat and large in the pack – and had all the accessories (coaches, physios, water boys, back-up staff, swish playing kit and tracksuits bedecked with sponsors logos etc.) one would expect of an elite – or aspirant elite – professional rugby outfit. They were patently well-drilled and certainly approached their uphill task with apparent serious intent and focus.
In every professional sport there is an ever-present dilemma over competitions which, by their qualification rules, embrace participants of widely different quality and financial muscle.
Mismatches are bound to occur and the issue then arises of what to do about them: abandon these tournaments, for fear of offending the paying customers – or simply accept them as an occasional occupational hazard in the laudable process of exposing lower level teams to their elite equivalents in the cause of inspiring them and their supporters to enjoy their moments in the spotlight and aspire to greater things?
Yesterday – after a stodgy opening forty minutes in which they individually tried too hard, failed to knuckle down and then gifted the visitors a classic interception try from 80 yards out, Quins led 14-7 and by that margin courtesy only of a touchdown by rising prop Kyle Sinckler scored as the referee drew his whistle to his lips to signal half-time.
For the home crowd of 11,200 plus who had made the pilgrimage intent on watching nothing more than the Quins debut of Welsh superstar centre Jamie Roberts and a pre-Christmas rout, this had been deeply frustrating fare.
The consensus in my row (in what I call the West stand) was that some heated words from the coaching staff would not go amiss in the dressing room during the break.
In the event, whether the boys had indeed shipped some flak, or alternatively had a caring arm placed around their shoulders, the fifteen who re-emerged for the second stanza were unchanged in personnel but very much changed in attitude.
They immediately somehow managed to butcher a wonderfully-engineered (backs-and-forwards) chance when yards from the line in returning the re-start kick-off – and, let it be said in passing, went on to miss another three ‘dead certains’ from either bad luck and/or over-elaboration over the next forty minutes.
However, in that time they also ran in seven more second-half tries with a mix of straightforward beautifully-executed first phrase moves and brilliant inventive play-making, extravagant jinking, slick off-loading and passing and – at times – (it ought to be said) touches of sheer genius.
Quins duly added 45 unanswered points after the break to win the contest 59-7.
On the eve of the Varsity Match I had watched Jamie Roberts give a television interview in which he had said he was greatly looking forward to making his debut for Quins partly because he wished to challenge himself again at this late stage of his career (he’s 29) and our style of play was well- known to be expansive and attacking.
Quite what he would have made of yesterday’s outing, I can only speculate. At times during the second half, after Quins had pressed the ‘all action, free-flowing entertainment’ button with such relish and begun throwing the ball about in bewildering fashion, the big man looked momentarily lost amidst the chaos going on around him. That said, he did little wrong and carried the ball up with huge momentum several times before scoring his own try directly under the posts.
The Harlequins now look nailed-on for a quarter-final place in this competition.
Conor O’Shea and his staff did the right thing by resting some of our first team stalwarts ahead of bigger challenges to come and – in the scheme of things – to be honest yesterday’s outing was pretty meaningless.
Over the next four weeks things will be getting very serious very quickly.