Yesterday to the Stoop with great expectations. Yes, Quins were in a trough of a run results-wise and in the back of one’s mind one feared the worst – especially since we were playing local [well local in the sense they now play out of Reading’s Madejski Stadium] arch-rivals London Irish.
However, the ground was virtually full and there was a buzz about the place – even grizzled oldies had their faces painted as part of a drive by Comic Relief – the sky was blue, the sun was out. It was, if you like, perfect Quins rugby-playing weather. After the season’s months of disappointments and Conor O’Shea’s blather about “the season starts here, we have to win practically everything from now on …”, since 17th January we have lost six out of the last seven matches in all competitions. All this admitted, I’ve got to be honest with you – I was looking forward to the game and quietly confident.
I sensed a similar ‘forget the past, let’s go forward from here’ groundswell of opinion around me in the stand. The gallows humour remained, but there was plenty of buoyant banter filling the air. Maybe this time …
The numbing fact is that Quins won a nervy, error-strewn, match 26-20.
They did this largely courtesy of nonpareil former All Black fly half Nick Evans who – as ever, his 35th birthday coming up in August – was a class and a half above everybody else on the pitch, kicking all of our points bar the two tries.
We shaded the early penalty exchanges and grew into ascendancy on the run of play – spluttering, but throwing the ball about with apparent intent.
The score was 19-6 with half-time beckoning, everything under control and a four-try win bonus point seemingly inevitable, when we secured a penalty inside the Irish 22. Instead of taking the 3 points, we opted for the corner and a line-out. The line-out was ‘overthrown’, Irish gathered the ball and kicked long and high. On halfway, the ball bounced badly for hapless Quins full back Ross Chisholm, normally so secure. By complete chance the ball fell to James Short, Irish winger, pressurising, and Fate gifted him a 45 yard unopposed canter to score under our posts.
So 19-13 at half-time, then.
Still, we in the LV= Stand figured, there was only one team in it – surely we’d score two to four more tries in the second half. Our boys came out as if they felt the same. Plenty of huff and puff, but they lost their way. On 65 minutes, rather against the run of play, the ball found itself in the hands of speedy Irish outside centre Tom Fowlie who jinked in, past three despairing tackles, from the halfway line down the far touchline. The conversion was a formality: 26-20.
And so it remained. At least Irish were happy, they’d secured a losing bonus point for finishing within 7 points.
The honest truth is this was a match between the sides lying in ninth and tenth place in the Premiership table and both played like it – confidence was conspicuous by its absence.
In terms of effort and systems, nothing was spared. But regarding inventiveness, verve, flair and sporting entertainment, it was a deeply disappointing spectacle. It wasn’t just that Quins lost their mojo in the second half. As our play became stilted and stodgy – and London Irish began to sense that they might just get back into the game if they ‘gave it a go’ – it looked for all the world as if our players had unhitched their brains and given up. By the end, to this onlooker, it seemed they’d run out of ideas and were just hanging on.
The fact that, as the clock ticked into overtime, our substitute scrum half Karl Dickson gratefully collected the ball from the back of a maul and jogged 20 yards towards our own try-line before hoofing the ball into row Z tended to say it all.
A tangential frustration was that Stuart Lancaster had released our England players Danny Care and Nick Easter for this game and they needed big performances to remind him that they should be starting against Scotland. Both did okay without shining particularly – though Care was on hand to finish off the move for the best of our two tries – and frankly Quins’ all-round lacklustre mediocrity did them no favours.