First things first. Last night I went down to the Stoop by car for Quins’ European Challenge Cup opening match against Montpellier (whose director of rugby is Jake White, the bookies’ current favourite to be the next England head coach) and managed to find somewhere to park off Twickenham Green albeit after two false starts.
It was the biggest achievement of my evening given the debacle of last week.
Quins have a bit of a reputation as a ‘cup’ side [typically, not a good bet over the slog of an attritional league season but capable on any given day of surprising even themselves] and particularly in this junior European tournament which they have won several times.
Both sides were fielding their near-top notch XVs and Montpellier’s looked very large indeed – even their backs were uniformly built like brick-outhouses.
The first twenty minutes were all visitor-dominated, especially the scrums, and when the rain began sheeting in waves from the south end of the ground to the north – into the faces of the Quins team – all the omens for anyone in the stands supporting the multi-coloured quartered shirts suggested it was going to be a very long night indeed.
Despite the on-pitch endeavour by all concerned, we had gone 3-12 down via penalties, three of them scrum-related – the most notable aspect of the action being the paucity of Quins possession, let alone attacking play.
In sport generally, folklore demands that to be successful you need both a Plan A and a Plan B.
When the first isn’t working, the wherewithal to try something else becomes an imperative. Painful experience, if nothing else, teaches you that ‘more of the same, just done faster or with more urgency’ rarely turns things around.
Even in recent times, for all our glorious attacking heritage, Quins have had a reputation for being flaky and one dimensional. Opposition teams know that if they can just prevent us getting the ball and stop our attacks before they begin, sooner or later we’ll run out of ideas and kick the ball away and/or succumb to a collective brain-fade.
I mention this because, seemingly out of the blue, in the last fifteen minutes of the first half we did come up with a Plan B. Kick down into the corners, drive off the line-outs, keep it tight and pound away with the forwards and – well, you know the cliché – the Frogs won’t like it up ‘em.
It certainly appeared that Montpellier didn’t. By the break Quins stood 15-12 up, having scored two forward-rumbling tries, a fact which seemed decidedly incongruous given the pounding our fat boys had been taking up front in the tight.
The Brains Trust around my seat agreed that the Quins coaches had also sorted a few things out in the half-time changing-room (‘hairdryer’ a la Sir Alex Ferguson being the consensus). With the wind and rain behind them for the second stanza, Quins became much more direct in the forwards’ exchanges and then began throwing the pill about with cavalier abandon.
Suddenly, almost before you could blow your nose, we had bagged a four-try bonus point.
The pick of the bunch began with a thunderous tackle inside our own half by Chris Robshaw, causing a Montpellier forward to cough the ball up into the hands of semi-surprised replacement prop Mark Lambert. He shovelled it on to winger Marland Yarde, who on this evidence had eaten three Shredded Wheats for his breakfast, having been industrious and dynamic from the outset.
Yarde took the ball up … executed a deft chip over the defensive line … re-gathered, and then strode on before passing inside to Danny Care. Care dodged right, darting down the right wing tramlines … then, when challenged, checked back inside to pass to Mike Brown, thundering up the middle in support. Yards later, as he in turn was tackled, Brown then flicked the ball up behind him … wonder of wonders … straight into the arms of just-arrived substitute winger Ollie Lindsay-Hague coming on the diagonal who thus, with his first touch of the ball, sailed majestically under the posts to score.
After that occurred a strange and exhilarating development. Instead of giving up the fight, Montpellier plainly decided that they would ‘give it a go’ as well … and the next quarter of an hour was breathless, hammer-and-tongs, harem-scarem, end-to-end stuff – more like a 7-a-side festival exhibition match than an important European pool stage contest.
By the end Quins had notched two further tries and run out 41-18 winners. This outcome was both difficult to credit and the cause of much relief and joy breaking out around the ground. After the first half we had been steeling ourselves for a nervy, tight, nip-and-tuck arm wrestle all the way to the wire.
Instead we got enough fireworks and excitement to satisfy even the most down in the mouth elements in the sizable ‘glass half empty’ section of support that Quins, like every team, attracts. My only personal reservation when driving home afterwards – to adapt the Iron Duke’s famous bon mot about the British troops of his day – is that I’m uncertain as to whether displays like last night’s will scare our fellow pool-stage competitors, but they sure as hell frighten me.