The Heineken Cup receives its fair share of criticism – one of the reasons that its future remains in doubt even as this season’s group stages approach their finale – but, whenever it comes to town, it provides great entertainment and brings with it a special excitement and glamour.
Yesterday lunchtime at the Stoop Harlequins were seeking a crucial victory over French giants Clermont Auvergne in their quest to reach the Heineken Cup quarter-finals.
The visiting yellow-and-blue fans were noisy and full of energy, bedecked with flags and drums, but the home faithful – knowing what was at stake – had also arrived fully intending to add their shoulders to the wheel. There was a carnival atmosphere.
However, let us be honest: not a man jack amongst the Quins fans was over-confident. This was a huge challenge and, the pre-match consensus in the Sussex Arms was, inevitably, that much might depend upon what sort of French team turned up.
We soon had the answer.
Clermont kicked off, re-gathered the ball, and immediately went through seven or eight waves of efficient and impressive attacking phases. Having already remarked upon the sheer physical size of the visiting players as they went through their warm-up routines, my guest for the day whispered out of the corner of his mouth “It looks as though it’s going to be a long day …”
He was not wrong. It was more than ten minutes before Quins secured their first front-foot possession and there was scarcely a period when they weren’t struggling just to hang on and stay in the game.
Despite this, Quins somehow reached half-time 13-3 to the good. In no small measure this was due to a single outrageous piece of skill from scrum half Danny Care – a slick reverse-pass executed whilst flying in mid-air on his way into touch – that sent Matt Hopper in for a try against the run of play.
Although the result was in doubt almost until the final whistle, Clermont were good value for their eventual 16-13 victory. In terms of control and potential danger to their opponents’ try-line, they must have had 70% of the game. I hesitate to reach for the tired ‘men against boys’ cliché, but – the truth is – that’s pretty much what it amounted to.
Funnily enough, back in the pub afterwards, the ‘sense’ of our group was resigned rather than despondent. On this day, Quins had been deservedly second-best of two, so we could but salute Clermont and try to move on. Someone pointed out that quarter-final qualification was still mathematically possible, but – to be honest – that’s ‘Roger, over and out’ for Quins’ 2013/2014 Heineken campaign.
As a fan, of course, you have to look on the bright side.
At least now we can concentrate upon trying to get that precious fourth place in the Premiership play-offs without any distractions.
As I have feared since the beginning of the season, it’s pretty obvious we’re lightweights at the moment in comparison to the big boys of both English and European rugby.