Saturday 20th August 2016. The Stoop, Twickenham. Second and final official pre-season match: Harlequins v Glasgow Warriors. Result – Harlequins 22 Glasgow Warriors 17.
These days the Harlequins club chooses to call its season ticket holders ‘members’ and bombards them with emails and sometimes phone calls offering all sorts of ancillary ‘privileges’ such as stadium tours and/or the chance to have (or win) an opportunity to ‘watch the boys train down at Guildford’, ‘watch a captain’s run on the eve of a match’, ‘come to an evening event to hear players and/or or coaches discussing how things are going’, ‘have your face painted’ and obtain special ticket deals for the traditional start of the Aviva Premiership season (the London Double Header) and then Big Game over the Christmas/New Year period – this year ‘Big Game 9’ – at Twickenham Stadium.
None of the above raises the slightest flicker of interest among a sizable bulk of those in the particular democratic grouping to which your author belongs – cynical old-timers over the age of fifty-five who hold season tickets [okay, ‘maintain their memberships’] for one reason and one reason only, viz. to watch the Harlequins play their home matches.
Furthermore, I never attend matches at ‘HQ’ for the simple reason that Twickenham Stadium’s match day spectator experience is without a shadow of a doubt the worst in the world.
Since I made my vow never to subject myself to it again in 2008, the only exception I have made (for the obvious historic reasons and under strong persuasion from both friends and fans of other clubs alike) was to attend the Quins’ Aviva Premiership Final win in May 2012 and, as I told someone yesterday, with hindsight afterwards I wished I hadn’t. I gained a far better impression and understanding of what actually took place on the pitch by watching my full Sky Sports broadcast ‘as live’ recording the following day than I did in person by sitting/standing in one corner of the East Stand surrounded by over-excited Quins fans waving outsized flags and banners which I estimate obscured 30% minimum of what otherwise I might have seen.
Yesterday in its infinite wisdom the club had decided to combine the traditional old-style ‘Quins summer party’ with a vets’ match between a Bob Hiller XV versus a Jason Leonard XV kicking off at 2.00pm, followed by the main event at 4.00pm. I’m speculating here, but I suspect the thinking was that, by opening the Stoop at 10.30am they hope to attract potential new fans and/or members by ‘trapping’ them in the ground by one way or another for seven hours.
As I drove down the A316 towards the Rosebine Car Park beyond the Stoop at 3.20pm [cost £7, up from £5 last season], I noticed a steady stream of parents and youngsters coming away from the ground – presumably they’d all had their faces painted, ‘selfies’ taken with their favourite players and a burger & chips or a Jolly Hog pork bap with crackling and apple sauce and were (tired but indoctrinated) now going home to relax.
Meanwhile those of us who had come to see the Glasgow Warriors game [some 5,700 souls if I heard the PA announcer’s words correctly towards the end of proceedings] – more in hope than expectation given the abject dross served up last weekend against London Irish – gradually settled in for the main course.
The Quins starting XV was much closer to that which might represent us at the season’s opening London Double Header match against Bristol on 3rd September – by which I mean that Danny Care, Nick Evans, Jamie Roberts, Tim Visser, Joe Marchant, Kyle Sinkler, Joe Marler, James Horwill, Chris Robshaw and Jack Clifford were in the line-up. As ever with these warm-up games, there was a ‘rolling subs’ system in operation whereby people to go off and come back on at the coaches’ will – which became a bit confusing at times.
Perhaps stupidly, this summer I had made a deliberate point of attending both our official pre-season games in the hope of getting a first look at our new boys and seeing how fit everyone was for the new term. On both scores, this plan was a waste of time.
Either that or – as the fan’s unofficial website message board has been chattering – we’re all going to have to strap ourselves in for a very tough season indeed.
The general feeling amongst passionate Quins fans is that in the seasons since 2012 we’ve been sliding inexorably backwards – for good or ill, Conor O’Shea ultimately proved to be not so much the actual Messiah as just a very good musical theatre actor playing the lead in a West End production of Jesus Christ Superstar – and the club’s decision not to replace him with a coaching A-lister but instead elevate the long-serving forwards supremo John Kingston to be head coach (albeit with bringing in ex-England forwards coach Graham Rowntree to look after the scrum) was a signal either that the power-that-be are basically out of their depth and/or just don’t ‘get it’. Not long after it had become clear that we’d failed to entice the great All Black coach Wayne Smith to replace Conor, I recall having a moan at a very senior member of the club and him responding with effortless confidence by counselling me not to worry – any minute now we were about to announce the signing of someone whose very name would knock the rugby world sideways.
To sum it up then. Once again at the Stoop there was plenty of heavy duty energy and endeavour on display from both teams, and at times not a little niggle (Quins naughty-boy props Joe Marler and Kyle Sinckler were certainly putting it about and, had they been spotted by the officials, either or both might well have received yellow cards). There was also a worrying number of injuries throughout the match – one of the Glasgow Warrior centres took nearly 15 minutes to be conveyed off the pitch on a stretcher, attended by eight or nine medics and doctors, on the stroke of half time – but, at the end of the day, yesterday’s entertainment told us absolutely nothing.
Or perhaps just very little. An honourable mention must go to Jonas Mikalcius, our giant brand new 21-year-old Hartbury College winger, who showed that he might be a very good prospect indeed. Coming on in the second half he ran in an excellent try from the halfway-line, scattering a raft of Warriors players in the process. One ray of sunshine in what otherwise was a very dull and dark-grey cloudy afternoon.