Saturday 19th March: Aviva Premiership Round 17: Harlequins 15 Worcester Warriors 21
It is not often that I have the opportunity to write the phrase ‘Words fail me …’ but this is definitely one of them.
First up, a salute to the Worcester Warriors – a mix of promising young players and non-nonsense, teak-tough veterans from around the globe assembled by Dean Ryan. They’ve been drilled to play a pressing game and their defensive system, tackling, ‘dog’ at the breakdown and sheer bloody-mindedness makes them a difficult team to beat. They can give anyone a game and always play for the full eighty minutes. There’s not a lot of fun, joy or laughter in what they do, but if I had to pick a team to play for your life then I suspect Worcester would probably be in my short-list of three.
They thoroughly deserved their victory and good luck to them. How they were ever in the relegation mix at all (as they have been until about the last month) is beyond me.
As for the home team, well after the game (in terms of time to reflect) I had the benefit of a two mile walk to the station and then a train trip home and – taking into account every game I have ever watched the Harlequins over the past twenty-three years since I first joined the club as a non-playing member, which description includes every Premiership, Championship (during the season we were relegated) and ‘A’ League home game, every Premiership, ‘A’ League, Championship, European Cup away game I attended (whether in England, Ireland, Wales or France) and lastly every Quins televised game I have ever witnessed – I can honestly say that I cannot remember a more abject performance from a team in the famous multi-coloured shirts than this.
Sadly, they began as they carried on. Or should I say ‘carried on as they began’.
Lacklustre, turgid, to all intents and purposes devoid of interest, ambition or pride.
I’ve seen veteran XVs and pub Sunday morning run-about teams – hell, I’ve played in some of them – that displayed more commitment and ‘game-nous’ …
Don’t get me wrong – I cannot pretend that in short spurts some individuals didn’t throw themselves about and get stuck in, but, from the first whistle, nothing ‘clicked’ for Quins in this outing.
They were never ahead on the scoreboard and never looked like being. Even in the last twenty minutes, when you’d think someone on the pitch would order the kicker to go for the corner when we were awarded a penalty, we routinely went for the pot at goal … as if our primary interest was the prospect of a losing bonus point rather than a home win.
In short, there was no wolf-pack hunting in the loose at the breakdown, no backing up or ‘security blanket’ arriving within milliseconds on the rare occasions that someone penetrated the Worcester line on his own, no building of momentum with the off-loading ‘pop’ passes and wave after wave of backers-up breaching the defence.
There was also far too much ‘kick-tennis’ from Quins – and all of it went inexorably straight down the throat of one of the Worcester ‘back three’ who then ran, or kicked, it back with added purpose and/or interest.
[I’m conscious I’m beginning to sound like and old fart, but so be it.]
Rugby, both by tradition and in my day, was always a game of possession. Deliberately kicking the ball away to the opposition is against every principle and sinew in my body. I held that view forty years ago and I still hold it today.
I don’t blame the players for the tactics, because they don’t invent them or drill them. I blame the coaches.
Rugby isn’t soccer and the scale of money sloshing around the system is a fraction of that in the round ball game. However, Premiership club coaches get well paid in the scheme of things. And when they send out teams that play as badly as Quins did between 3.00pm and 4.45pm yesterday, one has to ask the question:
“WHAT ARE THE COACHES DOING ALL BLOODY DAY, WEEK IN, WEEK OUT?”
As any fule no – even if he’s six years old and playing mini-rugby – you don’t just give the opposition the ball on a plate and invite them to have a go with it.
And – if you ever do kick the ball away – you always kick it anywhere but straight to the opposition defenders specifically posted to harvest any hopeful punt straight downfield. You want them to have trouble with the ball, perhaps have to turn and run after it, or – even better than that – you send it rolling towards the touchline like the great Irish player Ronan O’Gara used to do, so that (even if you give away possession at the throw in) you gain ground … not just give it away.
At the end of the day, I cannot think of any other commercial organisation (well, other than another sporting team) which in its right mind would ever contemplate putting such a sub-standard and low quality product in the marketplace and expect their customers to pay for it.
So how do rugby coaches get away with it?
Frustratingly for Quins supporters, it seemed as though the club had decided this weekend that they really didn’t need/want another tough game at this stage and so just put out a side that was told to go through the motions, hoping to get no more serious injuries as a result, ready perhaps to do proper battle during the remainder of the season when our ‘Six Nations’ boys get back.
If that was the case, the club should have had the decency to tell us in advance, so that we could either claim our money back … or at least (glad of the notice) then could just have done something else with the three to four hours of our time that we ended up wasting down at the Stoop yesterday. Watching supposedly professional players dropping passes, knocking-on, passing the ball straight into touch, crabbing sideways across the pitch, or just running aimlessly straight into the first defender they come across … is no thing for a paying customer to be forced to watch.
We could have gone to see a movie, watched a couple of Six Nations games, put a bet on a horse and had more enjoyment, if not reward.
As it was, I was just all too happy to join the growing river of people draining from the stands with about eight minutes to go, by which time the game had effectively ended and the players were standing around, re-setting endless scrums, ‘trucking it up and recycling’, i.e. just seeing out time. Watching paint dry didn’t come into it. Even walking in the opposite direction to the grid-locked traffic crawling down the A316 seemed more rewarding in prospect. Either that, or (if you like) I’d paid my money and was entitled to make my choice …