Every true club fan, whether they support an elite team or their local village side, has a relationship with dejection. In his feature film Clockwise, John Cleese – playing a stressed school headmaster – summed it up neatly with the line “It’s not the despair, I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.”
Quins supporters have reached that point, again. Harlequins have played poorly all season and yesterday reached another nadir with yesterday’s 39-17 thrashing by Saracens at a near-capacity Wembley Stadium (83,800 spectators, a new club match world record) to drop to sixth in rugby’s Premiership. There is now scant chance that they can regain momentum and challenge for a top-four, play-off qualifying, finish. The truth is that they don’t deserve one anyway.
There is a certain irony in the degree to which, the worse things become, the starker and more obvious the problems, and indeed solutions, crystalize in supporters’ minds. There is a world of difference between ‘owning a club’, in the way that fans always think they do, and the complexities and practicalities of actually running an elite professional team. Not that this stops the threads on the club’s websites – both official and unofficial – being full of opinions and advice that, exposed to life’s reality, would send the team in question straight into a tail-spin.
Here was Harlequins’ situation on Saturday morning. Faced with playing Saracens, possessed of one of the strongest club squads in the Northern Hemisphere and already all but mathematically guaranteed a Premiership home semi-final, Conor O’Shea decided to rest three of our four England internationals.
The logic, supported by the fact that Quins had lost eight out of its last nine matches against Saracens, was presumably that it was better to concentrate upon trying to win the next four league games than risk Chris Robshaw, Danny Care and Mike Brown, three of England’s biggest successes in the recent Six Nations championship, getting injured in what was almost certainly going to be a losing cause anyway.
For the fans, this meant – by definition – that we were on a hiding to nothing. For, if the management has effectively conceded a match before it is played, what was the point of even turning out to watch it?
In the event, the inevitable happened. It wasn’t so much the scale of the defeat that caused fans’ depression, but the manner of it. In the first half, there were two Saracens ‘interception’ tries, caused directly by poor Quins passing, and a third gifted, walk-in, one that was the equivalent of taking candy from a baby. The match was over by the break.
Yes, we might have lost anyway, whomever had been selected to play.
Yes, maybe at this stage of what is always a physically demanding season, taking a medium-term view and husbanding your best troops so that they are fresh for the games you think you have the best chance of winning is a smart – or pragmatic – move.
However, it is raw agony for the supporters.
Their theme is that hitherto he’s led a charmed existence. All the building blocks of the current squad were put in place by the disgraced Dean Richards. O’Shea’s own buys, e.g. the over-thirties winger Paul Sackey and lock Nick Kennedy (muckers from O’Shea’s London Irish days) and the Northampton reject prop Paul Doran-Jones, have contributed little or nothing. Ignoring this season’s savage injury crisis – which one-eyed fans like me are all too swift to do – Quins have therefore had been forced to rely upon a combination of ageing vets (Nick Evans and Mo Fa’asavalu will never see 33 again), half-fit squad players and some of the kids from the academy who, with the best will in the world, are not really ready to mix it with the Premiership big boys.
It’s not so much the fact that we keep losing, it’s the way that we keep losing.
Gone is the Quins old panache, the growing momentum and then sense of inevitably about our prevailing in the end.
We still throw the ball about, but there’s no penetration in attack or even conviction in the body language. We can produce a range of extravagant gestures and showy moves, but these days they end in dropped or forward passes, or with the player in possession being clattered into a heap.
Sadly, it’s time to batten down the hatches, methinks.