Sunday 11th February 2018: Aviva Premiership Rugby – Round 14: Harlequins v Wasps at the Stoop, kick-off 1.00pm: Result – Harlequins 22 Wasps 44: New League positions – Wasps 3rd on 44 points, Quins 9th on 32.
It was another in the ongoing fierce (former local ‘derby’) series of matches in the century-and-a-half-old rivalry between these two clubs who were once joined at the hip as Hampstead FC but whose administrators decided to split in 1866 – two factions going their separate ways – because by that stage so few local to Hampstead were on their playing roster.
Happily, for once I watched this entertaining match live on BT Sport, played in cold but bright conditions leavened by a massive ten-minute squall of freezing sleet and possibly hail just after half-time, from the comfort of my own home – the half-hour build-up session being transmitted from 1230 hours.
I mention this last fact because during the preview, as ever consisting of (1) talking heads by the side of the pitch picking out individuals to watch for in particular; (2) short pithy interviews with both directors of rugby; and (3) breezy anticipatory comments from the commentator Alistair Eykin and pundits Richard Kay and Ugo Monye.
I mention (3) above because – from a Quins fan point of view – one not-altogether helpful statistic chucked into the mix as the players took to the field was the news that over their last eight games in all competitions the record of the boys in multi-coloured shirts was ‘W-L-W-L-W-L-W-L’.
This latest evidence tending to reaffirm Quins’ stereotypical reputation as the skittish supposed Harlem Globetrotters of elite English rugby, infuriatingly quite capable of ‘getting themselves up’ to beat the European Champions against all odds one weekend and then losing to a New Forest part-time pub team the next, was not well-received by your reporter who placed an immediate order with his staff for a refill of his glass of artisan Oxford Toad gin & Fevertree tonic with a touch of Angostura bitters and lashings of ice in readiness for the ordeal to follow.
The truth is that Wasps were by far the better team on the day and their 44-22 victory accurately reflected their superiority, reducing the home crowd – usually one of the most passionate in the Premiership – to near-silence by the final knockings.
Let us leave aside the news from pundit Ben Kay during his preview that Wasps had just received a notional fine from Premiership Rugby for breaching the salary cap, apparently because the status of one of their mercenary overseas signings had been revised to ‘home player’ via the time qualification regulation, thereby requiring his agent’s cut to be redefined as coming within UK tax law.
This served as a timely reminder that the complex, not to say arcane, rules covering the salary cap – greatly discredited because so many Premiership clubs are plainly ignoring it and only a season and a half ago four of them reached a still-secret accommodation with Premiership Rugby whereby they paid undisclosed sums to ‘wipe the slate’ clean when the evidence demanded they should forfeited enough points to have made a complete mockery of the final ‘top four’ league placings and thence the award of the Premiership title – are nothing but a fudge.
Yesterday both teams came out firing upon all cylinders and yet within ten minutes Wasps had scored two tries via Juan de Jon and Thomas Young.
A potential turning point came in the 17th minute when, in successive passages of play Wasps’ talented centre ex-Rugby League player Kyle Eastmond first poleaxed Quins full back Ross Chisholm and then clothes-lined the 18 year-old home prodigy fly half Marcus Smith and nearly took his head off.
Chisholm retired never to return but Smith somehow played on.
Under the new regulations this season both incidents should have warranted an automatic straight sending-off but referee Wayne Barnes had missed the first and so (live on-air) the video official interrupted his mini-conference with a touch judge about the second in order to show him the video of the earlier one.
In doing so, the second incident – far more spectacular and blatant – also got replayed, prompting huge roars of indignation from the crowd, and the no-nonsense Barnes reached for his red card immediately.
In rugby union playing a man down is a significant disadvantage – the statistical average number of points conceded after a yellow (10 minutes in the bin) is 7 – so this early departure, extrapolated by me for the purpose of this theoretical exercise, could have resulted in Wasps shipped another 42 points during the game.
It was Quins’ chance to get back on terms and the initial signs were positive.
The restored-to-working-order Smith then orchestrated enough brilliant openings and opportunities over the second quarter of the game that by half-time Quins had enjoyed at least five 50:50 try-scoring chances inside the visitors’ 22 [these days one of rugby’s most fashionable, not to say telling, statistics is “conversion rate per number of visits you make to your opponents’ 22” – and inevitably it is one of those at which the All Blacks excel] yet managed to convert just one.
The causes of these failure to execute – not counting the outstanding Wasps’ defensive shift – were a combination of a general lack of precision, the odd slice of bad luck, but primarily a terminal case of ‘white line fever’ breaking out amongst our pack which, in all, must have spent the best part of ten to twelve minutes fruitlessly banging its head against a proverbial brick wall whenever encamped two yards from the visitors’ try-line while the backs (and the crowd) were screaming themselves hoarse for the ball to be flicked out wide.
Suffice it for me to sum up the second stanza thus. Wasps’ bench contained a far more dynamic and illustrious set of players than ours and, as tired legs began to take over and the substitutions began, the gap in quality became more influential. It didn’t help that Quins academy player Archie White received a yellow card for a breakdown misdemeanour with 15 minutes to no-side but in his defence this barely affected the result. By the end Wasps were scoring virtually at will.
About ninety minutes after the match ended I donned my winter gear and went out for a hour’s stroll around my home town just for the hell of it and returned home feeling much better.