And so to the Stoop for Harlequins’ first match of the 2015/2016 Aviva Premiership season, against Wasps. In days gone by this would have been one of the keenest London derby matches but – with London Irish down in Reading, Saracens now at Allianz Park and ‘London Wasps’ having moved from High Wycombe to Coventry last year – we Quins fans now like to regard ourselves as London’s only Premiership club.
For the moment let us leave aside the ‘salary cap’ debacle (up to four teams allegedly in breach of it, but the issue of anyone being held to account for this outrage having been kicked into the long grass largely thanks to the fact that, as I understand it, all major Premiership decisions have to be unanimous among all twelve clubs in order to take effect and therefore a stalemate continues) and indeed the fact that, with the Rugby World Cup scheduled as it was, the Premiership season had to begin six weeks later than normal.
The fact is that, year on year, all rugby’s Premiership clubs contract better and better players and get fitter and fitter. That’s inevitable. I’ve also written before on the Rust that any team that stands still is de facto going backwards.
Looking round the Premiership, there is scarcely a club that hasn’t been investing heavily in its playing squad.
In the last three years Wasps under Dai Young have been making steady progress – they made it to sixth in the league last term – and it looks as though their move to their Coventry stadium, which they own outright, has secured their once shaky finances. During the summer Jimmy Gopperth (most recently of Leinster), Dan Robson (Gloucester) and the great Australia veteran 7 George Smith arrived and this season, in my view, Wasps look good to be bidding for a play-off place.
Then let’s come back to Quins – the only team that matters to me.
Since winning the Premiership in 2012, we’ve gone backwards simply by not going forwards.
Our policy was always to develop through our academy and for a period of four or five years it worked reasonably well – we loved playing in our all-out attacking style which each group of kids had grown up with and they slotted in seamlessly. Or so it seemed.
But then the other teams worked our style out and – last season, depressingly – actually began playing it better than we were ourselves!
Whether the tale of last year was simply that we began poorly and never failed to get out of second gear all season (one view commonly held by the fans who sit near me in the stands) I don’t cannot say for sure. Al I do know is that well before Christmas the confidence had drained from the team and in game after game we began making many times more handling errors and cock-ups than a Quins team worth its salt ever should.
Then, towards the end of last season, Conor O’Shea began acting upon a big sea-change decision. Out went the ‘academy based’ principle and in came pragmatic realism. For a while now Quins had lacked grunt both in the midfield and in the pack and something had to be done. Suddenly, the word was, we were getting ‘down and dirty’ with the best of them in the transfer market.
In came Welsh international greats Adam Jones (tight-head prop) and Jamie Roberts (centre) – albeit Roberts is still involved in the RWC at the moment and may not arrive for another month.
We also picked up the Aussie lock great James Horwill, still only 30, who was unlucky not to make the Australian 31-man squad – he’s a monster and an impressive all-court player; Mat Luamanu – a Number 8 who is built (and plays) like a brick out-house; and Winston Stanley, a 26 year old Australian-born Samoan international centre.
Thus to the Stoop for last night’s 7.45pm kick-off.
Generally my attitude as a fan is that the Quins’ glass is half-empty. If it wasn’t before, it certainly went that way long before last season was even halfway over.
I had picked this opening game of the season as a 50:50 call. Wasps give the impression of having plenty of self-belief in the tank and they’re nobody’s push-over. I was hoping of course that Quins would hit the ground running and pull off a win, but I wasn’t prepared to predict it in public.
My first port of call upon arriving at the ground was the merchandising shop, just to see what was there. A few years back every season I used to buy most items of branded clothing automatically by habit. These days I pick and choose – I only buy when I really like a design. Suffice it to say I didn’t buy anything last night. It’s all ‘cheap and cheerful’, not (as I believe it should be) ‘upmarket and stylish’.
The game was largely as I expected. There wasn’t much between the teams. Via their signings Quins had gone up two notches minimum in the grunt stakes. Even (last night) playing its first game of the season the 2015/2016 team would have put 20 points on last year’s equivalent, no doubt about it.
But Wasps were impressive too – big men, big hits, no quarter and very well drilled, not least in defence. The power ratio in the game was broadly even. Quins played best in the second and third quarters of the match but elsewhere – to be honest – Wasps slightly had the edge and Quins were on the defensive (albeit their defensive system was also strong). Most worrying, there were times when Wasps recycled through twelve to twenty phases without coughing up the ball and Quins could seemingly not get hold of it.
In the end Quins prevailed 26-21 through keeping the scoreboard ticking over thanks to the efforts of captain for the day Nick Evans who personally scored 21 points via a try, two conversions and four penalties.
From my perspective, this was a damned close run thing – Quins won but they could just as easily have lost. Of our ‘newbies’, Horwill and Luamnu stood out. That statement is probably unfair to Adam Jones, who anchored our scrum, but I don’t know enough about what forwards do to be able to pronounce with any degree of certainty.
Still, 4 points is 4 points and not to be sniffed at.
[For a detailed account of the action, readers should go to their favourite newspaper or sports website.]