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Please pardon my ‘doubting Thomas’ moment …

[The Stoop, Saturday 9th January 2015: Aviva Premiership Round 9: Harlequins 29 Saracens 23.]

As I type this I’m trying to think of comparable days in my life to match yesterday – perhaps the birth of my kids; my two wedding days; my last day at school on which I captained my house to a win in the final of the school’s knockout hockey tournament against all the odds … and in Quins’ terms, the whole ‘lost weekend’ away trip to play the Cornish Pirates in Truro during the season we were relegated to the Championship (2005/2006); the twin ‘away’ and then ‘home’ matches in Europe against Stade Francais during the 2008/2009 season, in the latter of which Fly half Nick Evans scored his winning drop goal in torrential rain after now fewer than 28 Harlequins phases in overtime at the end of the game; the epic Amlin Cup semi-final victory away against Munster at the height of their powers in Limerick at Thomond Park in the 2010/2011 season, after which we went on the win the Amlin Cup Final in Cardiff via a last-minute Nick Evans penalty from the side-lines; and of course our Premiership Final 30-23 victory over Leicester Tigers at Twickenham Stadium on 26th May 2012 … but that’s about it.

In opening I want to contradict myself by recording that overnight I’ve read every newspaper report of the game I can lay my hands upon and – although I normally direct Rust readers who wish to know the blow-by-blow details of what happened to read them … and then deliberately avoid regurgitating them myself in order not to waste everyone’s time – on this occasion I have to say that none of them convey the full majesty of a great rugby occasion.

First up, I want to mention the Quins fan from Birmingham who yesterday morning put up a post on the unofficial Quins fans’ website ComeAllWithin saying he, his wife and 12 year-old son were travelling down in a state of keen anticipation on their first-ever pilgrimage to the Stoop – quite what an impression this ding-dong slug-fest of a match that ended in unforgiving conditions of cold, windy, torrential rain must have made upon them, I can only fantasise with pride to contemplate.

DSC00859For sheer unrelenting intensity and excitement it was exemplary. Both teams spared nothing in a seeking a result that could easily have gone either way.

Saracens, unbeaten and playing their thirteenth game of the season, were as they always are: huge, physical, expertly-drilled, efficient and this season worthy runaways leaders of the league. They lost one of their senior players – the in-form England tyro lock George Kruis – to a head injury only about three minutes into the game in an incident I did not see but which, after a delay of eight minutes to tend and stretcher him off, then resulted in a yellow card for our Aussie lock James Horwill which hinted at some form of skulduggery [possibly for use of a straight-arm in a ruck?] noticed by the officials.

From that period we were suffering on the back foot, wilting, as the visitors applied suffocating pressure as only they can. At scrum-time we crumbled time after time, so Sarries played upon it. With Owen Farrell directing the play around the field with precision and well-executed kicks, their ‘kick-tennis’ tactic and straightforward brute up-front force, we were soon permanently camped inside our 22 and in real trouble. After a series of painful scrum capitulations just metres from our line – any one of which, to this onlooker, could have ended in a penalty try – Sarries rumbled over for what became an inevitable touchdown.

Throughout the ominous first half Quins were operating as best they could on scraps of possession.

That said, the boys clearly had no intention of lying down and surrendering. Our England contingent (Care, Brown, Marler, Yarde and Robshaw) stood up to be counted whilst Horwell – once he had returned from the bin – and our other (Welsh) star summer signings Adam Jones (tighthead prop) and Jamie Roberts (centre) also got stuck in, as did ‘young gun’ England aspirants Jack Clifford (playing at Number 8 this time) and Luke Wallace (at 7), neither of whom did their causes any harm.

The game was full of big collisions, great individual bits of skill and feisty incidents – as was only to be expected in a ‘first versus third’ clash. Indicative of something was when the much-decorated veteran Adam Jones, sometime British Lions front-row legend whom I have never before seen lose his temper, took great umbrage at one forwards’ melee and spent the next quarter of an hour throwing himself about like a 19 year-old.

With all that was going on referee Craig Maxwell-Keys, in only his ninth Premiership game, did pretty well in my view – not that, of course, this prevented me adding my prejudiced home support to the boisterous banter and howls of protest from both sets of fans sitting amongst each other in the stands at any decision that went against their team … and there were plenty of these to get exercised about!

In fact the ‘love-hate’ relationship between the rival fans was another noteworthy aspect.

For those of a Quins persuasion – indeed any other non-Saracen fans around the country –  whilst being grudgingly admired for their skills and efficiency, Sarries are widely derided for their supposedly boring and ruthless ‘results are all that count’ approach, which allegedly involves strangling the life out of the opposition game plan, making them play the way Sarries want them to, and then just being very good at what they do.  Which, of course, they are, not that it particularly endears them to anyone.

Meanwhile Saracens fans – knowing that they’re hated by everyone for the reasons stated above (and also for allegedly being found guilty during the ‘salary cap’ scandal but not properly penalised for it by the spineless time-servers at the helm of Premiership Rugby) – feel aggrieved at every incident in which sneering condescending fans of opposition teams (whilst claiming the moral high ground of playing self-styled simon-pure, ‘free-spirited’, running rugby themselves) seemingly resort to just as many dodgy time-wasting tactics, off-the-ball clashes, cheatings at the breakdown, and general gamesmanship, as they delight in criticising Sarries for.

It all makes for some tasty crowd exchanges which on occasions leaves me undecided as to whether it is just ‘rugby banter’ or something somewhat more distasteful and ugly.

As it happens, surprisingly – thanks to a combination of our dogged refusal to bend the knee and two ‘against the run of play’ Quins tries, the second of them not long before the half-time whistle went – we went in at the break leading 15-14.

The second stanza cranked up the intensity, minute-by-minute. Quins were playing into the wind, which grew markedly in force, and then the monsoon downpour arrived – exactly on cue as predicted by the weathermen – and, even to the most-committed Quins fan, the possibility of a 15 to 20-point victory margin for the visitors still seemed potentially on the cards.

But it didn’t happen. For a run-of-the-mill Premiership ground (small beer in comparison in anything to in football) the Stoop traditionally has a great atmosphere and – when the sap rises – it can go up another gear to bear pit level. Yesterday the place was rocking all game to the collective roar of Quinn The Eskimo (Mighty Quinn) and our favourite chants. At one point I found myself wondering what our ‘foreign’ summer arrivals made of the pandemonium – hopefully they were amazed and delighted at joining a club that can generate this sort of devotion.

To be sure, the second half was an uphill struggle to get out of our own half and up the other end. A major factor was the yellow card (subsequently changed to red) for Sarries’ substitute prop Rhys Gill, just minutes after he had come on, for a tip-tackle on centre George Lowe – an unfortunate victim for Gill as George had lost 15 months of his career two years ago with a suspected broken neck, so the former took a lot of stick as he headed for the ‘naughty step’.

Quins took the lead 24-23 with six minutes to go when Ben Botica (on for Nick Evans) slotted a penalty kick, after which we were soon again under siege inside our 22, with Sarries manoeuvring Farrell towards a winning drop-goal attempt.

Suddenly Robshaw got a boot to the ball at a ruck, Clifford gathered and sprinted 60 yards chased by the entire visiting team … then the earlier-second best Quins pack were grinding away ever closer to the Sarries line… and with less than a minute to go, Horwill was bundled over the line for a try and now certain victory.

DSC00868The win was celebrated as you might imagine – relief, elation and joy for the home supporters.

The lads did a lap of honour … and then we all trudged home in the monsoon – wet, bedraggled, soaked to the skin  – but still happy, just like five and a half decades ago when my brothers and I sometimes got caught in the rain when out with my father walking the dog in Monsal Dale in Derbyshire … only to get home, drenched, pull our clothes off for dry ones, and then sit around the open fire in the front room eating potato cakes drowned in butter and drinking cups of tea with two sugars with the ‘black and white’ football results on the television in the background.

Life was good then. And, of course, now.