Yesterday to the Stoop, to see Harlequins record the second of back-to-back Heineken Cup victories over Racing Metro, this time by the margin of 17-3.
Racing continue to play up to the Anglo-Saxon stereotypical view of French rugby. Having moved last week’s ‘home’ game 241 miles from Paris to Nantes – supposedly in the cause of spreading their ‘brand’ – and succumbed 8-32, the owner announced they were no longer moving their next home game to Toulon (“we’re not good enough to leave Paris at the moment”) and then made fourteen changes to his team for the away trip to south-west London. British Lions Jonny Sexton (fly half), Mike Phillips (scrum half) and Jamie Roberts (centre) all started.
I may have mentioned this previously, but the one thing you always notice with French teams – even if composed largely of glittering mercenaries from around the world – is their size. They are uniformly huge. Yesterday, not for the first time, Quins looked like callow youths in comparison.
Having lost their first two group games, strategically Quins were still playing catch-up. Anything less than a win would mean an end this season’s Heineken campaign. The omens became unfavourable when, about forty minutes before the lunchtime kick-off, the heavens opened and rain began sheeting across the pitch.
As things transpired, however, the home team need not have worried. Racing played as you might expect: with vigour, but (understandably perhaps) little cohesion – some of them had only just met.
Quins gained a stranglehold on the match in the first half, which they ended leading 14-0, largely through the good offices of Nick Evans, back to his inventive and incisive best, and Danny Care, which combination kept Racing pinned back in their own half. The pack also dominated the the scrums and lineouts.
The second half, though containing plenty of effort by both sides, was a disappointment. The only scores were a penalty apiece and I was puzzled that Quins did not push on in a bid to gain the (four) try bonus point.
To be mentioned in dispatches are Charlie Walker, the dyed-blond right wing threequarter whose darting and electrifying speed has brought him rave notices and two tries in two games against Racing, and Luke Wallace – yesterday playing at 6 – who again was everywhere at the breakdown and is the best flanker (Number 7) at the club by some margin … and I include consideration of the England captain in reaching that verdict.
Lastly, a comment upon the arrangements which – for me – once again demonstrated rugby’s chronic lack of commercial foresight and planning.
The Stoop was publicised as opening its gates at 1045, in view of the television-demanded 1245 kick-off. However – because neither bothered to attempt to vary their noon-start alcohol licences – not only did the Stoop and the traditional nearby watering-holes lose out, but those of us who like a drink before a game either had to go without, or else join the heavy bar crushes, and then indulge in mass speed-drinking competitions, once inside the ground.
No doubt this, coupled with live coverage being available on Sky Sports, contributed to the size of the crowd – only two-thirds of capacity.