A visit to the Tigers’ den
The record will show that yesterday that Quins lost 19-22 to Leicester Tigers at Welford Road, gaining a losing bonus point and as a result now sitting at 6th in the Premiership league table.
There’s a theory abroad that – broadly speaking – winning your home games and picking up the odd victory (over the minnows) and losing point (against the big boys) away will stand you in good stead as regards finishing in the top six and thereby securing any self-respecting Premiership club’s first goal of automatic qualification for the following year’s senior European cup tournament, so perhaps one should be satisfied for small mercies.
However, it’s not quite the whole story.
Any away game against one of the Midlands powerhouses (Leicester Tigers, Northampton Saints and if you wish to stretch a point Wasps, now plying their trade out of Coventry) is a tough assignment.
These teams play uncompromising ‘old school’ rugby. Their stadia – again, I count Wasps as an exception here because since their move they now operate out of a ‘soccer’ stadium the Ricoh Arena) – are cavernous, forbidding, hard-arsed, mid-20th Century places with minimal comforts and facilities housing vociferous, resolutely one-eyed, home crowds who unashamedly boast a mild (rugby) version of Millwall FC’s ‘Everyone hates us and we don’t care’ attitude. Going up there at any point from October through February tends to be a cold, wet and unrewarding physical experience for away fans (and, I imagine, the players too) – in other words, closer to an ordeal than a pleasure.
Welford Road is one of England’s bigger rugby-only grounds – I believe last season its capacity was around the 24,000 mark and during the summer off-season they began stripping out the club-house end and replacing it with a ‘proper’ new stand which I’d hazard to guess will add another 1,500-plus to the potential total. If I heard correctly the new stand will be ready to take fans at the Tigers’ next home game in about three weeks but yesterday it was just an empty skeleton and gave the ground a ‘three sides only’ appearance.
The other noteworthy aspect of Welford Road is the size of the pitch. To me it looks narrower that a normal Premiership offering – this may be a purely physical ‘space’ perception issue because the crowd always seems very close to the pitch and there’s precious little ‘run-off’ width beside the touchlines or at the ends, or it could in part be by deliberate design in order to ‘crowd’ and/or suffocate oppositions who are unused to it.
As regards the first of these, at the former ‘club-house end’ (where the new stand looks about two-thirds completed) referred to above, yesterday the ‘in-goal area’ beyond the try-line seemed no more than five or perhaps seven yards deep, which was a bit strange and off-putting to me as an onlooker.
Separately, the narrowness of the width of the pitch – and/or the closeness of the crowd – was demonstrated by the injury retirement of the Tigers’ excellent fly half Tommy Bell early during the second half (having notched 5 penalties from 6 attempts) when an otherwise innocuous ‘sacking into touch’ by Quins’ Marland Yarde caused him to collide with an advertising hoarding and suffer damage to his knee. At a normal rugby ground he’d had more likely been clattered onto the ground and walked away unharmed.
As already hinted, Leicester and Northampton are proud hotbeds of Midlands rugby – towns generally more famous for their rugby clubs than soccer ones, their derbies uncompromising clashes for temporary territorial bragging rights – and not easy places to go, with honourable defeats usually the height of visitors’ ambition.
That said, recently the Harlequins have fared historically better than most, with three wins from their last four visits and yesterday they led 13-12 at half-time. Then, having brought on the ‘heavy mob’ [Marler, Easter and this season’s club captain Danny Care to the fore] from the bench with half an hour to go and enjoyed 93% possession of the ball between the 50 and 60 minute-mark, including some scrum-time dominance, not least two heart-warming 30-metre pack ‘rumbles’ forward, this viewer was daring to hope of another memorable victory.
It was not to be. Owen Williams, who had switched to 10 upon the departure of Bell, produced a sensation 60-yard penalty kick right to the Quins’ five-metre line and, with the home supporters roaring them on, from the resulting line-out and a succession of forward rushes the Tigers ratcheted up the pressure and finally drove over for a converted try to put them 22-19 ahead with nine minutes to go.
Thereafter, despite huffing and puffing back down the Tigers’ end like good ‘uns, Quins just could not find the score that could have secured a draw or even a hard-earned win.
I am not one to criticise referees unduly but it would be fair to say that Tom Foley, officiating in only his ninth Premiership match, made some judgements that had onlookers (including at times both sets of coaches and indeed players) metaphorically scratching their heads.
It was nevertheless frustrating in the extreme for me as a Quins fan to watch a final scrum, awarded five metres out from the Tigers’ line just three minutes from no-side, being re-set three or four times (taking up two and a half minutes) when a quick heel – by either side – could have resulted in an epic climax to proceedings, with Quins battling for a score and Tigers giving their all to prevent it, in open play.
I would wish to stress here that I’m not suggesting that Mr Foley was in the slightest bit biased against either side – both were equally baffled by some of his decisions – and, on the day, I certainly wouldn’t argue that the home side did not deserve their narrow victory.