I am in favour of Premiership Rugby’s ‘A’ League – broadly speaking, a competition with eligibility limited to non-regular-starting 1st XV players.
From a fan’s point of view, it provides the opportunity to assess those players who are who (1) are returning from injury; (2) otherwise didn’t feature in recent Premiership match-day 23s; or (3) are in the club’s academy or young player development group. In the general scheme of things the ‘A’ League is ‘bread & butter’ stuff, but it can give you an edge on both which players may soon be in contention for the first team and which kids are making an impression.
That said, how your own club fares in the ‘A’ League group stage inevitably depends upon how seriously it is taking the competition in any particular season. Let me put it this way – not long after Quins won the Premiership itself, we also won the ‘A’ League. At that stage the latter seemed a valuable part of what was making the club a force in the land.
Other clubs have varied in their attitude towards the competition.
Some have regarded it as just an obligatory but somewhat ‘Mickey Mouse’ affair – they seem content to lose heavily (if that is what happens) in the ‘A’ League because they’re concentrating all their energies on the Premiership itself.
Which brings me to my solo outing to the Ealing Trailfinders’ artificial pitch last night in order to watch the London Welsh v Harlequins ‘A’ League clash.
This expedition began inauspiciously as, despite setting off in what I regarded as good time, a combination of my car’s sat-nav system and the Monday night west London traffic conditions caused me to reach the main stand some ten minutes into the match.
It was a depressing evening, played out under floodlights in front of a crowd barely into three figures.
Quins, whose team had certainly looked promising on paper in terms of our rising stars, was severely out-muscled in the pack and eventually lost by the margin of 40 points to 5 (six tries to one).
No excuses, but even before I had arrived Quins’ captain for the evening Jack Clifford had been carried off injured. About 20 minutes in, the big novice lock George Merrick retired hurt … as later did returning first-teamer Ross Chisholm.
The consensus amongst Quins fans nursing pints on the concourse outside the bar was that London Welsh were fielding the remnants of their Championship promotion-winning side (they allegedly bought 25 new players during the close season). Uniformly they looked more mature and considerably bigger than their opposite numbers.
Four of the London Welsh team’s tries came from forward pack steam-rolling trundles towards our line, mostly following line-outs.
My first conclusion afterwards was that quite possibly Quins are not taking the ‘A’ League seriously this year, which – in a general context – I find both disappointing and another symptom of our current malaise.
Otherwise, my headline notes were that our first teamers on display were generally anonymous and our kids lightweight compared to their London Welsh counterparts.
I take no satisfaction from recording that I have never been convinced by our young fly half Louis Grimoldy. With a 10, you’re looking for sheer class and an ability to ‘boss’ a game. He’s been with us two full seasons now and, though sound, he’s demonstrated scant evidence of either.
Given Harlequins’ poor start to the Premiership season, from a fans’ point of view this thumping ‘A’ League defeat at the hands of bottom club London Welsh is just another ‘nail in the proverbial coffin’ of a growing the impression that over the last 18 months Quins have either been going backwards … or alternatively, if one is being charitable, just ‘marking time’ whilst other ambitious clubs around us have been making forward strides.