Yesterday, upon something of a whim, I chose to tune into BT Sport’s “live” television coverage of the English rugby Premiership clash between third-placed Harlequins and “long-time top of the league table” Leicester Tigers at the Stoop in West London (kick off 3.00pm).
The Rust’s editorial staff has a degree of interest in the playing fortunes of the Harlequins in that one of our original (founder) columnists – reporting exclusively upon all things Quins – was once a three-decade-long supporter until overnight he became disillusioned, decided not to renew his season tickets and resigned from our roster, whilst another (now with the Rust party enjoying an Easter break in the South of France) has become a committed Quins follower only over the past couple of years.
The outcome was a 26-20 victory for the home team which – as it happens – left the Tigers almost guaranteed a home match in the “Top Four” play-offs and Quins a place in the mix of the league season’s finale as well.
No doubt Rusters interested in sport will be aware of the result and may already have read match reports in the national and/or rugby press and so today I shall “pass” on providing one myself.
However, on yesterday’s evidence – despite all the politics, the differences between the priorities of rugby union’s amateur clubs and the Premiership, the criticism of Eddie Jones and the England team, the inconsistencies and contradictions that bedevil the administration of the sport and the growing concerns over player safety and long-term health that are not going to go away any time soon – I wished to record today that, out on the pitch, the professional game in England appears to be in rude health.
We are now fast approaching at the business end of this season’s Premiership run-in, with just three regular season games to go after this weekend and the “Top Four” places beginning to crystalise.
As I strapped myself into my armchair yesterday, complete with an array of handmade sandwiches, my copy of The Times and a jug of ice-cold Pimm’s all within reach, there was much to like.
Pre-match at the Stoop, with a capacity of 15,200 not one of the biggest grounds in the competition (that of Welford Road, home of Leicester Tigers, boasts one of 25,849) sold out for the fourth home game in succession, there was a colourful and noisy festival atmosphere with both sets of fans intermingling and bantering together in the warm sunshine.
Once proceedings began under the watchful eye of veteran referee Wayne Barnes, these days enjoying something of a career Indian summer – he had an outstanding game yesterday – it was relentless, full-on attack, “edge of the seat”, sporting entertainment all the way.
One thing that can be said of Quins, after their extraordinary “Cinderella” season last term in somehow going from mid-table mediocrity to the Premiership title in posting 12 wins in 16 games, including two extraordinary victories “coming from almost down-and-out behind” in the knockout stages – and this after “losing” their director of rugby Paul Gustard in February and continuing without replacing him for the rest of the campaign – is that they have built a squad that has totally “bought into” their chosen playing style and holds nothing back.
It’s become part of folklore these days, but both opposition fans and teams know exactly what they’re going to face when they play Quins: the question is how they are counter it and then hopefully get them on the back foot.
It is to the benefit of the Premiership that many clubs have opted to “fight fire with fire” – as the Tigers did yesterday.
I can honestly say that the number of rugby Premiership clubs who try to adopt the strategy of first “shutting down” and stopping their oppositions playing, most often via an incessant “kicking game”, can be numbered on just the fingers of one hand [and readers should note here that in making that statement I am deliberately excluding the thumb].
These days – whether one is a committed rugby union supporter, a general sports fan, or even a “newbie” who wouldn’t ordinarily seek out an oval-ball game as something to view – it is a plus that one can tune in to literally any Premiership rugby clash and see a thrilling physical contact spectacle of open, end-to-end, action.
I’d go so far as to suggest that even the occasional instance of a – previously frustrating and irritating – front row “mothers union mucking about” sequence of repeatedly re-set scrums is not necessarily a negative: it gives the viewer at home a welcome opportunity to catch his or her breath, nip for a “comfort break” and/or the preparation of another cup of tea, before “… off we go again”!