Saturday 6th February 2016: Aviva Premiership Round 11: Harlequins v Northampton Saints at the Stoop: result – Harlequins 23 Northampton Saints 27.
Yesterday I had a near-perfect rugby day in prospect, having bought four additional tickets to the Saints game upon request for a cousin, a brother, his son and the son’s mate. We’d lunch at the Sussex Arms; meet up with other pals at the ground; after the match retire to the Turk’s Head in St Margaret’s to watch the Scotland v England early evening game in the 2016 Six Nations on television; and then retire to the home mansion for a slow-cooked chilli con carne and bed.
I don’t expect much in life – events always seem to have a habit of tripping me up so, after setting off early by car to the Sussex Arms [in a breakfast brain-wave, I had realised that if I dropped my car off close to the pub – provided of course I could find a space and then kept a lid on my drinking – we could all pile into it after the game and then drive the mile to the Turk’s Head rather than have to walk it, or rely upon the buses … the one uncertainty in our plans] I was amazed to find a rare parking spot in a prime position and then, after walking back to the nearest bus stop on the main road beside Twickenham Green, was immediately picked up by an H22 bus on its way straight to Richmond.
In short, a preparatory expedition that I had anticipated might take anything up to an hour and a half took just 35 minutes. Now all I had to do was relax and wait until it was time to catch the bus down to the Sussex Arms to begin my seven-hour bout of fun.
I felt a bit like Basil did in that episode of Fawlty Towers in which, having fought a score-draw with a haughty, old, hard-of-hearing trout who loves complaining, he then manages not only to place a bet (in defiance of his wife’s Sybil’s strict edict) but then goes and wins £75 on the nag he’s chosen.
For one brief, delicious, triumphant moment he realises that, for once in his life, against all the odds and past bad experience, he has actually come out on top. To see him almost curl up in a ball in exaltation at his rare slice of good fortune was hilarious.
Of course, in Basil’s case, things didn’t quite end like that. The Major inadvertently walks into the hotel foyer and happens to mention that Basil has placed the bet. Behind the desk – with ‘her indoors’ Sybil standing beside him – in shock Basil drops the old trout’s vase (valued at exactly £75) on the floor and then has to hand over his entire winnings in order to compensate her for the breakage.
And thus it was for me also. Having explained my ‘getaway’ ruse to the party over lunch in the Sussex Arms [the order being ‘re-group here beside my car after the game for the drive to the Turk’s’], off we went to the game.
Afterwards, having waited ten minutes for my brother and his group to join me at the car, I rang him – only to find that somehow he hadn’t ‘registered’ my grand plan and now, having waited in vain outside the ground for further instructions from me, had got fed up and decided to walk to the station and return home to watch the England match, rather than come with us to the pub.
I don’t know – you just cannot get the staff these days! You give people simple, straightforward, instructions and they fail to obey them … and thus chaos and disappointment results.
A bit like the Harlequins first team squad recent performances, really.
Before the game, both sets of fans – frustrated by their team’s lack of form – were predicting doom and gloom. Saints, beginning by playing with the gale force wind going south to north down the pitch all afternoon, came out of the blocks with intent (once more, like all our opposition, they looked three inches taller and a stone heavier than our guys) and were leading 17-14 by half-time.
It had been tough going, but in my stand the Quins fans were quietly confident. Our 14 had come from two converted tries and, with the assistance of the wind to come, we could feel a 4-try bonus point win coming on.
After the break we must have had 65% to 70% of the possession and territory without ever quite putting Saints to the sword. Once more – too often now to be mere accident – our defence was worryingly paper-thin frail in the face of wave after wave of visitors’ attacks when they did get the ball.
Nevertheless, despite being under the cosh down near our own line as the clock went into overtime with us leading 23-20, we gathered the ball and fired it back to fly half Ben Botica standing well behind our try-line.
All he had to do to secure the victory and 4 league points was punt the pill into row Z of the stands.
But he didn’t do that. He punted it long all right, but straight down both the ground and the throat of a Saints wing threequarter. About two minutes later, and perhaps 12 to 15 phases of Saints’ recycled ball, their full back Ben Foden sold a classic dummy to scamper over the try-line for a converted try and a 27-23 victory for the visitors.
I don’t normally indulge in criticising my own club’s players but on this occasion I feel entitled. The enormity and stupidity of Botica’s last act of the game was so great that it left all Quins fans stunned and buzzing with incredulity as they trudged away from the Stoop.
It’s sad, but you cannot help it. We all go to work each week (unless we’re retired) and do our best in our little lives, but these guys are supposed to be professional rugby players. We in the stands could see what was tactically required with the clock well into overtime – i.e. get the ball off the park and thereby kill/win the game!
But no. Our replacement fly-half – son of the great Frano Botica, who played international rugby in both codes for New Zealand – made an elementary mistake of either decision or execution. I’m someone who cannot play rugby but even I could see what was required.
Had Botica been so drilled by the coaches that he could not think for himself – or is he just thick? I’m sorry, but I don’t wish to contemplate which it was because neither answer resolves anything.
I’m going further by placing another finger of blame on another Quins player.
Towards the end of proceedings our full-back Ross Chisholm, who earlier had scored an excellent try, fielded a ball just inside our own half and first dithered for far too long … and then ran aimlessly straight into the nearest two Saints defenders. He immediately got ‘turned over’, the Saints launched an attack out wide, we went backwards forty yards in ten to fifteen seconds and were then under pressure near our own line for the remainder of the game.
If Chisholm had instead run into touch, sought out someone to pass to, or even just put through a grubber-kick ahead, Quins would have been around the Saints’ 22 and on the attack. Instead, Chisholm had inadvertently begun the sequence of events that led to our losing 4 points for a win and coming away with just a losing bonus point.
That’s 8 league points we have given away in our last two (losing) Premiership games, all 8 of them down to sheer basic naivety.
Modern professional sport is a tough, relentless and unforgiving business. As a committed fan, you can forgive or excuse a team almost anything else – but not that.