For obvious (coronavirus) reason Rugby’s 2019-2020 Premiership season made a welcome but weird and tentative return last night at the Stoop some three months after it had scheduled to finish in May, with the 7th in the table Harlequins hosting 2nd-placed Sale Sharks.
Despite its inherent sexism, for some reason as I joined the family to watch it live on BT Sport – who are showing all post-lockdown matches live – Samuel Johnson’s famous quip on the remarkable thing about a woman preaching (“not that it was done well, but that it was done at all”) came to mind, though I kept the thought to myself, being outnumbered three to one at home by men.
Given where we had reached – cricket, football, Formula One and snooker having already resumed behind closed doors – over time as a television viewer this summer one had become accustomed, to one degree or another, to the lack of crowds, the safety protocols and even (when used) the ‘canned’ atmospheric noises.
[For what it’s worth, hitherto for me personally cricket and football had seemed to work best in these strained post-Covid circumstances].
On the pure viewing level for me, rugby seemed to return as well as any, possibly because the full-on nature of its physical contact is of its essence. Those learning the game are always taught that half-hearted contact is a near-certain route to injury – one reason, of course, why some youngsters decide early on that it is not for them.
Last night – on that score – the onlooker need not have worried.
As their coaches attested during the pre-match chat, both teams looked huge and as fit as packs of proverbial butcher’s dogs; had been getting increasingly fed-up about not being able to play for real; and were raring to go. And when the first whistle blew, went about it with considerable gusto.
It was immediately apparent that the issues in prospect that one had been concerned about – chiefly every area of the forwards’ contribution to proceedings – were indeed those where ‘health and safety’ was going to be in ever-present danger of getting near the knuckle.
At scrum-time, line-outs, rucks, the breakdowns after tackles – the chances of the on-pitch inflection rate crashing through the 1.0 barrier right up to global pandemic proportions in a couple of minutes was obvious.
Nevertheless, within a short space of time the forwards were behaving as if Covid had never happened. We even had two or three little bouts of “handbags” and pantomime villain Quins prop Joe Marler getting a formal ticking off for winding the opposition up (as per usual).
The collisions were unremittingly fierce, the cauliflower-eared claret began to flow here and there (swiftly attended to by medics summoned by referee Luke Pearce, and on one occasion in the second half – at first this observer thought this was a prank – by a female doctor sprinting on in full, ankle-length, PPE kit including a ‘diving bell’ helmet) and pile-ups of dirty, sweaty ‘fat boys’ were everywhere.
Inevitably last night mistakes, fluffed ball catching, knock-ons, skewed kicks and elementary mistakes abounded. Early days yet, of course, but no amounts of hard yakka on the training field will ever make a rugby team battle-ready.
Only battle can do that.
Last night’s clash – to be frank – for all its huff and puff, was pretty average as a spectacle.
In advance some of the on-hand media pundits – Lawrence Dallaglio and Ugo Monye amongst them – had predicted that the pumped-up fitness and hard grounds would promote all-action, hard-running entertainment in the style of New Zealand’s recent new Super Rugby competition, but the weather got in the way with a series of short showers punctuating the action and making the ball slippery.
All that said, my review would be 8 out of 10 for player and administrative effort, 5 out of 10 for the quality of the game, and 10 out of 10 for the fact the game took place and was televised at all.
Harlequins 16 – Sale Sharks 10.
[As usual, interested Rusters can read or watch the media for detailed reports of the game. Sale were disappointing given their star-stacked lockdown period recruitment whilst Quins were efficient and ruthless in their game management. It’s only going to get better from here.
Today’s mid-afternoon clash between Bristol Bears and Saracens should be very tasty.]