The Stoop has a reputation as something of a fortress and a forbidding place for opposition teams to visit. The Harlequins fans pride themselves on the length of the gaps between home losses and, until last night, the current period had been twelve months and counting.
As regular National Rust readers will be aware, after last weekend’s London Double Header in which the Harlequins looked surprisingly lacklustre and, having dominated the first 40 minutes, totally failed to impose themselves upon London Irish in the second, I had feared the worst of this home fixture.
Saracens had won ten of our last eleven meetings in all competitions – in derby ‘bragging rights’ terms, for a while now they have seemed to have had our number – and, through gritted teeth, on this website I had predicted a 15-point margin victory for the visitors unless something remarkable happened.
Today, clothed in sack-cloth and the ashes of my season ticket membership cards, I have to report that something remarkable did indeed happen.
Quins were humiliated.
I wish to take nothing away from Saracens’ performance last night, orchestrated primarily by their imperious starting fly half Charlie Hodgson, who not only scored a try and 22 points but, for good measure, also received the first yellow card of his fifteen-season Premiership career.
Though fielding nothing close their potential 1st XV, our visitors were the better side by several notches.
Two season ago their reputation as a hard-nosed dull team that kicked a lot and ‘played the percentages’ may have been justified, but they have come a long way since. In this context, if I now begin by praising their defence, it may give a false impression. Please do not be fooled.
Quins paid just one visit to Saracens’ 22 in the first half and, try as we might – both by ‘route 1’ and whatever guile we could muster (even when on two separate occasions Sarries went down to 14 men via yellow cards) – we were consigned to battering our heads against a brick wall all evening and in the end, to be blunt about it, gave up.
Save for isolated pockets of resistance – Mike Brown conducted a personal 80-minute one-man Rorke’s Drift of heroic grit and defiance featuring stout fielding of the ball, dynamic running and at least two try-saving tackles – Saracens were uniformly superior at the breakdown, the line-out, the scrum and, above all, in imposing suffocating pressure on the home attack.
It’s a sad fact of life that, whenever things are going seriously wrong, inevitably even Lady Luck deserts you.
Both Quins 10s – Nick Evans (on the evidence of his two starts this season now in terminal decline) and half-time substitute Ben Botica – had defensive kicks charged down. Evans’s directly led to Hogson’s try and Botica’s all but gave away another.
As defeat became inevitable, heads went down and unforced errors crept in. Ollie Lindsay-Hague fumbled a ball on the halfway line, Sarries kicked ahead and Chris Ashton, giving Quins’ defence at least 10 metres start, easily won the sprint to collect the ball and flop over the line.
In the dying moments, Quins fans watched in horror as the Sarries pack rumbled over from a line-out for their third and final try, rather in the manner of a hot knife running through butter.
What concerns me is that last year, from about October to January, Quins played like a mid-to-lower Premiership team. Then we had the excuse of a massive slate of injuries which forced them to play academy kids before they were quite ready. It was only by a monumental effort in the last month of the season that we won five games on the trot to make the play-offs.
The honest truth is that we’ve now begun 2014/2015 by reverting to playing like a mid-to-lower Premiership team. This time – as far as I am aware, disregarding the fact that last night, after both Matt Hopper and Charlie Walker had retired hurt, we were reduced to playing a callow back row forward Jack Clifford at centre – there are no in-built injury excuses.
In my gut, I can feel a long, long season coming.