The Stoop, Sunday 17th January, kick-off 3.15pm: European Challenge Cup: Harlequins 34 Cardiff Blues 26.
The headlines from yesterday’s entertaining encounter are that Quins, despite having yet to play home and away fixtures against Montpelier in Pool 3, have already qualified in first position (with a guaranteed home tie) for the 2016 European Challenge Cup quarter-finals.
Regular readers will recall that, after 2014/2015’s catalogue of disappointments, when the Premiership season opened in October the hope and expectation quotient amongst Quins fans was as high as ever, if only on the basis that this term could not possibly be as bad as last.
For once, thankfully, things came to fruition. The new incoming ‘senior’ players added the intended ballast, the squad was relatively free of injury and fit after a long pre-season and we hit the ground running. Even a couple of early defeats were barely worrying – in both we had acquitted ourselves well and, but for the ‘rub of the green’, could easily have prevailed. A run of form developed and the media began to sit up and take notice. Last week’s epic struggle in which we became the first team this season to lower Saracens’ colours was a watershed and we are now in the heady and unfamiliar position of being acknowledged Premiership contenders once again.
Historically it would perhaps be stretching a point to suggest that we are a regular ‘second favourite’ team of supporters of many Premiership clubs (some of them detest everything we stand for) but it might just be fair to suggest that if you look in your diary and see that your team’s next fixture is against Quins you can be reasonably confident of two things: firstly, it won’t lack for entertainment and secondly … however things pan out … you’ll always have a chance of winning.
Having had the advantage of both attending yesterday’s game and watching since my tele-recording of the ‘live’ broadcast on Sky Sports, I can report as follows.
Both teams had put out what looked close to their best teams and beforehand both directors of rugby had expressed their determination to ‘play rugby’ and go for the victory.
Talk about ‘sublime to the ridiculous’!
Quins came out of the blocks like a well-oiled Formula One car. Despite Cardiff defending well and being no mugs at the breakdown, we were simply unstoppable. By half-time we were 28-0 to the good, with a four-try bonus point – and automatic qualification for the quarter-finals – already in the bag. It was Harlem Globetrotters-type stuff and all the more remarkable for taking place in a true and hard-fought contest.
During the break, in the Sky sports studio, pundits Scott Quinnell and Lewis Moody were positively purring at Quins’ performance – all the more so because, guided by the evergreen Nick Evans at 10, we had been attacking from everywhere, even from deep within our own 22.
Different game altogether, the second stanza.
Within ten minutes of the re-start Cardiff had scored two tries. They’d plainly had a talking-to from their coaches whilst – with widespread expectation that shoals of Quins players would soon be taken off (to be ‘rested’ for future, more testing, contests) – for their part the home team had metaphorically gone to sleep.
Rugby is one of those team games in which momentum is hard to acquire but, when it has been, damned difficult for opponents to stop and/or wrestle back.
Thus it was yesterday. Once Cardiff gained the ascendancy their comeback against the odds was much to be admired – in fact they ‘won’ the second half by 26 points to 6.
Conor O’Shea has been peddling ‘We’re contenders now’ talk in the media since Christmas. Whilst I always hesitate to contradict any of his tablets of stone from Mount Sinai, the truth is that our defence is still far too porous to be that of a potential Premiership winner. We may indeed be imperious on the front foot but when our opponents do their homework properly they can rely upon the fact that – if they can stop us playing and keep looking for their own opportunities to attack – at the moment there’s a fair chance we’ll cough up soft tries.
It’s frustrating for Quins fans. One minute we’re sweeping all before us and the next we’re waving attackers through to our line. Games such as these producing basketball-type scores are all very well for neutrals, of course, but scoreboards don’t lie. If you’re shipping over 20 points per game sooner or later you’re going to start losing.
And this as the business end of the season approaches … batten down the hatches, lads!