Friday 22nd April 2016: European Challenge Cup semi-final: Harlequins v Grenoble at the Stoop; result – Harlequins 30 Grenoble 6.
“Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone …” (or whatever it was that W.H. Auden wrote in his Funeral Blues poem that was recited by actor John Hannah at a funeral in the 1994 movie Four Weddings And A Funeral written by Richard Curtis and directed by Mike Newell) – last night was the occasion of the return – a fortnight earlier than anticipated – of former All Black Nick Evans after ten weeks on the side-lines with a broken leg.
Played in a bitterly cold wind and a downpour that became relentlessly torrential in the second half – this was a full-bloodied contest which the Quins, as expected, duly won in the end at a canter, but not without a struggle because Grenoble (currently 10th in the French Top 14 league) are an improving side containing not a few mercenaries from the Southern Hemisphere. This was a European cup semi-final and by their nature such games are one-offs that can go either way. Grenoble were no mugs – their defence was outstanding and they kept plugging away – but they were bested in the up-front battle and overall seemed to adapt less well to the weather conditions.
Quins are regarded as awkward team in prospect to play. They tend to blow hot and cold, which means that, on any given day, they can win or lose against anyone and yet always have trouble maintaining their form over the course of a full league season. It remains UK folklore that when French teams travel abroad you never know which team will turn up, but similar could be said of the Quins, playing either at home or away. Hence their enduring tradition as a dangerous cup side, especially in this (junior) European competition which, following last night, they will be bidding to win for a record fourth time, a contest that your author will be on hand in person to witness, three weeks hence in Lyon.
There were two special moments in this match.
The first came not long after the start when Welsh and British Lions international Jamie Roberts picked a run on a perfect ‘out to in’ line when the Quins pack were camped ten metres from the Grenoble line, split the defence and strolled around behind the posts unopposed.
The second came half an hour before the end, by which time Quins already had a buffer of fifteen points and were in control. Without fanfare Ben Botica (his understudy at fly half) received the shepherd’s crook treatment and on jogged Mr Evans to a tumultuous ovation from the home supporters, albeit that nobody present was more evidently pleased about his return to the field of play than the maestro himself. He immediately began issuing instructions and taking command in the playmaker role.
With what felt like his first touch of the ball, but which may actually have been his second, he made his mark with one of his trademark moments of magic.
Camped inside the Grenoble 22, the Harlequins moved the ball swiftly from a forwards’ melee to the left. Evans received the ball, took it up to the Grenoble defensive line, half-feinted to pass the ball wide but simultaneously dabbed the ball through, evaded an despairing attempt to obstruct or bring him down, and flew over the try line to dive and touch the ball down just before it reached the dead-ball line.
He then got to his feet and raised his hands to meet acclaim of the crowd and ‘high-fived’ with a lone kid who had rushed to the front in his excitement and had raised his right hand for the purpose. A neat and poignant ‘welcome back’ moment to mark a piece of creative Evans class that, despite the fact he’ll celebrate his 36th birthday in August, remains beyond all but a handful of native UK talent in the Premiership.
The only negative note of the evening concerned loose head prop Joe Marler, who was back after his two-match band and £20,000 fine for his ‘gypsy boy’ taunt of Samson Lee in the England v Wales Six Nations match.
He had a storming all-round game and totally dominated his opponent in the scrum, but after the match news came that he had been cited for connecting with the head of an opponent with his foot and/or leg in the aftermath of an ‘off the ball’ handbags incident. I’m not sure when his appearance before the disciplinary beak will take place but it raises the worry that, if he is found guilty, he might get banned from appearing in the Final.