On the Rust we rarely tend to post multiple reports on a sporting fixture and here’s a first from the sport of rugby union:
Aviva Premiership Round 13 – Friday 19th February 2016, kick-off 7.45pm – The Stoop – Harlequins 25 Leicester Tigers 19. (Quins 4 league points: Leicester Tigers 1).
The blunt verdict?
The big man looked sleek and toned, and did one or two things impressively well in his old style, but to me looked two or three games short of true international match readiness – maybe four if Jones’ widely-broadcast general criticisms of the England Six Nations squad’s level of fitness are going to be applied to him.
Tigers’ hooker Tom Youngs (who wasn’t playing) had described the Stoop as a tough place to visit in the Daily Telegraph this week and the truth is that it was a tough place for both teams to play at last night. Coming in, the Tigers had lost three games on the bounce and the Harlequins four – both had been recently spanked by bottom of the table Newcastle Falcons and both badly needed to find a victory from somewhere.
The weather didn’t help. It was cold, blustery and even before kick-off the rain could be seen in the floodlights drifting across the ground from a south-westerly direction. Rookie Leicester fly-half Oli Bryant, with the wind behind him, put the ball straight into touch from the kick-off and – to some surprise from all quarters – the Quins pack seemed to have a nudge on its Tigers’ equivalent at the resulting scrum. It was clearly going to be a full-on but nervy affair.
The home team acquired a few nuts and bolts of veteran steel last summer but the truth is that – the Six Nations having deprived them of five key players with possibly another to disappear if Scotland’s Tim Visser proves his fitness – they had contrived to lose two of their last four matches from comfortable winning positions and they clearly lacked confidence. The Tigers meanwhile, renowned for their hard-nosed training regimes courtesy of uncompromising director of rugby Richard Cockerill, looked full of intent but equally as desperate.
The first half ended 9-9 (three penalties apiece) which might have given Quins fans some cause for hope of a favourable outcome during a second half playing with the wind. But somehow the weather seemed to have abated by a couple of degrees and the rest of the match opened into a hand to hand struggle in which basic errors and poor discipline on both sides played their part.
Leicester were first to score a try through replacement flanker Harry Thacker, though Ben Botica, accidental villain of Quins’ last home defeat against Northampton Saints, found a redemption of sorts as he kicked a total of 20 points (six penalties and a conversion) and kept the home side’s nose in front up to the point where a robbing in possession of Tuilagi allowed Quins to counter attack. Botica then wriggled into enough space to set away a grubber kick that bounced perfectly for the combative Yarde to collect on the sprint and then outpace the Tigers’ defence to dive over the line for a classic reply.
But that wasn’t the end of the matter. As the minutes ticked down to no-side, substitute 10 Freddie Burns potted a penalty to put the visitors within range of a losing bonus point and then, from a line-out close to the Quins line as the clock went into overtime – accompanied by a cacophony of noise from the sold-out Stoop – they notched no fewer than 20 phases of throwing themselves at the Quins try-line over the next three and a half minutes in the hope of gaining a converted try for a victory before a handling mistake gave the opportunity for referee J.P. Doyle to reach for his whistle and signal an end to proceedings.
There was a touching scene after hostilities were over as Quins’ coach Conor O’Shea sought out and embraced Ben Botica and said some private things to him. In the post-match interview session, the Irishman praised his team’s resilience whilst admitting that – had they lost – it might have been a blow from which they wouldn’t have recovered for the remainder of the season. Quins flanker Luke Wallace deservedly won the Man of The Match award for his dogged defensive shift.
The Stoop was packed to the rafters, no thanks to South West Trains after Quin’s official website had to post an emergency mid-afternoon announcement that trains from Waterloo were going to be delayed by up to two hours.
Given the cliff-dive that the boys’ form had taken recently, I’d half-toyed with the idea staying at home in the warmth of my front room nursing a bottle of claret, albeit also armed with a large cushion ready to hide behind if the Tigers turned up – we didn’t – and we took another thumping like last week’s down at Kingsholm. Sometimes in life (I’m thinking Richard Dunn’s attempt to wrest the World Heavyweight Title off Muhammad Ali as an example here) you just don’t want to watch an odds-on beating live in the flesh.
I must declare an interest. For all their undoubted history as one of England’s top rugby clubs, Leicester Tigers are one of my least favourite opponents.
They and Sarries are the two teams that all other Premiership clubs hate: Sarries for their ruthless, boring play and the fact that – despite their accumulated losses of £49 million, businessman Nigel Wray and his fellow (South African) owners continuing to fund them – they are widely accepted (despite Premiership Rugby’s fudge on the issue, having investigated it) to have been one of the culprits in the salary cap breaching scandal.
Tigers because they’re big, hard, arrogant, successful and have a supplementary reputation down the ages for systematic borderline cheating – or should perhaps that be ‘getting away with a great deal’? All other clubs say so. They’re just not very nice … and they don’t care.
Take last night. At one point in the second half Ben Botica set himself up almost in front of me in the stand to take a penalty that would extend Quins’ leads to six points.
There’s a tradition in rugby that if not necessarily total silence – although if you ever go to Munster’s home stadium of Thomond Park you can literally hear a pin drop – a kicker at goal is granted the respect of not being jeered etc.
And yet, of course, just as Botica moved to take his kick, a voice at the top of the stand behind me yelled out “TIGERS!!!!!” in an effort to put him off.
I, and perhaps two or three hundred spectators, immediately turned round and stood up to howl indignation at the offender. Actually, heart-warmingly, the troll’s boorish act had a different effect to the one he presumably intended – just as sometimes when an opposition coach says your team is rubbish in the run-up to a game, it is sometimes branded as ‘giving your team’s pre-match motivation speech for you’. It made me mad and really want Quins to come out on top in straightforward retaliation – and I redoubled my one-eyed support for the boys on the park.
But that’s the Leicester club – and its supporters – for you. They’re just unpleasant. I’ve lost count over the seasons since we won the Premiership title in 2012 that fans of other teams have congratulated me (as a Quins man) for our feat and “especially since you did it against Tigers in the Final”.
Last night’s finale was a nail-biting affair, I don’t mind admitting. The thought of losing two successive home matches at the death, well into overtime at the end of the match … as looked quite possible as wave after wave of attack was repelled whilst getting ever nearer and nearer to our line … had me screaming in anguish.
It was a long walk back to my gaff in the drizzle afterwards, but it felt like I’d reached the stadium at the end of an Olympic marathon about a lap ahead of the runner in second position and was able to savour the cheering to the echo of the crowd as I jogged [well, perhaps not jogged, maybe strolled] all that triumphant way home to the tape.