Saturday 7th May 2016: Aviva Premiership Round 22: Harlequins v Exeter Chiefs at the Stoop, kick-off 1330 hours: Result – Harlequins 24 (0 league points) Exeter Chiefs 62 (5 point bonus-try win). Harlequins 3 tries (Care, Stanley and Sinkler), three conversions (Evans 1, Botica 2) and one penalty (Evans): Exeter Chiefs 10 tries (Nowell 3, Short 2, Dollman, Slade, Chudley, Ewers and Salvi) and 6 conversions (Steenson 6).
[Once again I am not going to describe this match in detail – I shall leave that pleasure to the professional scribes.]
This extraordinary match was one with everything going for it in advance. The Stoop was rammed full, with both sets of supporters in decidedly good voice before the commencement of hostilities. Under resplendent blue skies and bright sunshine, albeit with a strongish wind blowing south to north down the pitch, it was a day when those in the stands brave enough opted for short-sleeves and knee-length shorts, the grass looked superb and ready for running rugby and there was a general festive ‘end of term’ feel to proceedings, not least because it was the last game of the season for a good proportion of the Quins players on display and, far more importantly, Conor O’Shea’s last-ever home game at the coaching helm.
As it happened, both teams wanted – nay needed – the victory. Exeter because they might secure home advantage in the Premiership ‘top four’ play-offs, for which they had already qualified, and Quins because it afforded one of two slim chances the club has of qualifying for the senior European cup tournament the Rugby Champions Cup next season – i.e. coming 6th in the league – the other being the place available to the winner of the Final of this year’s junior equivalent (the European Challenge Cup), in which Quins take on the favourites Montpelier in Lyon this coming Friday evening.
Had this been a boxing contest, it should/would have ended at about the fifty-minute mark with either a towel flying into the ring from Conor and his fellow Quins corner-men or, if not, the referee Wayne Barnes taking the matter into his own hands. Not so much to ‘save a badly-outclassed contestant from his own stubborn refusal to quit’ but simply to save we long-suffering Quins fans from further punishment.
Ironically the home team, playing with the wind in the first half, opened the scoring in the fourth minute with a Nick Evans penalty. But from the moment that that the impressive James Short touched down wide in the left hand corner for the visitors’ first try six minutes later – allowing for the occasion lull and passage of play moving to and fro – it was essentially and depressingly one-way traffic.
There was not a facet of play in which Quins outplayed the visitors.
In organisation, speed to the breakdown, defensive resolution, creativity in midfield, dynamism, ‘dog’ in the pack, slick-passing, touch-finding and playmaking control they came second best by an embarrassing margin. There was scarcely a position on the field in which the Exeter player was not bigger, faster and more ‘direct’ than his opposite number.
Amazingly, at the break it was just 10-17 to the visitors – a score that did not flatter Exeter at all simply because Quins skipper Danny Care had been put through for a converted try on the stroke of half-time. By which I mean that, although the try was deserved – as all tries always are – it gave a misleading impression of the run of play to that point: 3-17 would have been about right.
The cruel aspect of Care’s unlikely and unexpected effort – scored as hundreds of Quins fans (including your author) had their backs to the action whilst heading for the latrines – was that it gave us false hope of things to come in the second stanza.
When Exeter scored their fourth (bonus point) try within minutes of the resumption the shape, organisation and – to be brutal – collective will to compete drained from the Quins team like water down a plug-hole.
With twenty minutes to go the Chiefs, by then scoring almost at will, had reached the point where the appropriate description of what was happening on the pitch had moved from ‘contest’ to ‘rout’.
It’s difficult to state this conclusively only because of my fading ability to recall anything that occurred more than five years ago, but this was definitely in the top three most of abject performances I have ever witnessed by a Quins team in the twenty-three years I have paid good money to support the club.
The only men in quartered colours that I would ‘mention in dispatches’ – or rather excuse from criticism – are Jack Clifford, Mark Lambert, Sam Twomey when he came on, Jamie Roberts and the indefatigable Chris Robshaw, whose heroic defensive work and stamina around the park whilst constantly on the back foot was astonishing in the circumstances.
Quins never got into this game and even senior players like Care and Mike Brown seemed out of sorts. Winger Marland Yarde, who went on England’s summer tour to New Zealand two years ago and looked a potential world class back in the making, remains an enigma. He cannot be faulted for the way he throws himself into the action at every opportunity but, for each dashing intervention that comes off, he cocks up at least another two and his defence leave plenty to be desired.
Ho hum – preparing (as I am) to leave for Lyon first thing next Friday morning currently feels akin to the prospect of going to visit a condemned man upon the morning of his execution.