Aviva Premiership Round 19: Harlequins v Newcastle Falcons @ The Stoop: Harlequins 46 Newcastle Falcons 25: (Harlequins 5 points for a 4-try bonus point victory – position 6th in the league table).
And so the Harlequins’ stuttering season continues. Our loss to Northampton Saints a week ago meant that a ‘top four’ Premiership play-off place had most likely slipped out of our own hands (now reliant upon results elsewhere being kind) and a ‘top 6’ position – giving us automatic access to next season’s ‘senior’ European cup competition – not yet guaranteed.
Cue the ‘stuck record’. We had been hoping and praying that after a relatively-disastrous 2014-2015 season (8th in the League), consisting of a lacklustre start and then, from late October onwards, a general lack of form and confidence that conspired to make our on-pitch performances a mockery of everything the club stood for, that this term was going to be different – a veritable case of ‘the only way is up’.
In terms of progress, however, 2015-2016 has been hewn from that well-known ‘curate’s egg’ vein of mining (viz. the best that can be said of it being ‘good in parts’).
Buoyed by our star pre-season signings we have undoubtedly had the wherewithal to give anyone a good game but – if there’s a pattern to be identified, it’s that unwelcome one for any club with serious play-off intentions, viz. ‘on occasion doing unexpectedly well against the top teams, yet otherwise struggling to dominate and/or routinely put the weaker outfits away’.
Far too often we have imitated the Newcastle United under its infamous Kevin Keegan regime (1992-1997) – our capacity to score at the other end being exceeded only by that to ‘switch off’ and leak points at our own.
In the stand where I sit this hasn’t made for much of a pre-match ‘buzz of anticipation’ or indeed a contented, non-stressful spectating experience. If I had to characterise it, I’d suggest there’s been more of a “grit your teeth, here we go again, strap yourselves in lads …” thing and a general all-round issue of brightly-coloured cotton cushions behind which to hide as the afternoon’s horror-show unfolds.
Yesterday was a case in point.
These days not even the teams in rugby’s Premiership relegation zone could be described as mugs and Newcastle (under the guiding hand of Dean Richards – the once beloved ‘Deano’ of Quins & Bloodgate notoriety) certainly couldn’t. Rather like Worcester Warriors, they’re well-drilled and would never roll over or lose determination.
The game can be easily put to bed. Newcastle, on their mettle, came out of the blocks – as Quins should have been expecting – and after a couple of bouts of re-cycled possession were awarded a penalty 30 metres out.
Harlequins 0 Newcastle 3.
Straight from the resulting kick-off – or so it seems in my memory – there was a sweet interception by Quins’ star wing threequarter of Dutch origin (and more of that in a moment) Scottish international Tim Visser: result, a converted try under the posts.
Harlequins 7 Newcastle 3.
The remainder of the half was pretty much even-stevens all the way, save for two more (semi-breakout, I’d hesitate to say ‘against the run of play’) Quins’ tries and at the interval the score was Harlequins 21 Newcastle 6.
Frustration, leavened by expectation that Quins would walk the second half, was my mood as I nipped along to the little boys’ room and grabbed a double expresso from a coffee stall.
Not long into the second half another Quins try – the fourth, guaranteeing us a bonus point – and the score stood at 28-6.
Thereafter (I could have predicted this without leaving my bed of a morning) we had twenty minutes of Newcastle continuing to ‘give it some’ … whilst Quins obliged by going on one of their ‘mental ‘walkabouts’ … and with fifteen minutes to no-side the score stood at … er … 28-25!
‘Head in hands’ time (and comparative, stunned, silence) in the stands.
Then suddenly, from somewhere … and I witnessed no on-field impassioned leadership ranting at any point in proceedings, which I would have thought had been urgently called for … Quins got their act together.
Two more tries, by Joe Marchant and Marland Yarde, saw us home for a respectable 46-25 final score.
All this took place in weather conditions of balmy strong sunshine followed, as accurately predicted by the weather forecasters, with light rain showers from 5.00pm onwards.
I suppose you could call it entertainment.
Earlier, having arrived three hours before the game for a rendezvous and meeting, I had strolled around taking in the atmosphere and then decided to leave the ground temporarily to smoke one of my little cheroot cigars.
I sauntered over to the racks on the edge of the north car park, at which motorbikes are habitually left, and politely asked a group of middle-aged men (all wearing specially-made ‘tour’ replica rugby shirts) whether I might join then by planting my butt on one of said racks for the duration.
“Be our guest …” was the smiling gesture in response.
It turned out they were a deputation from an amateur rugby club in Hilversum in Holland. They had travelled to the UK for a four-day visit – apparently co-organised by our Scottish/Dutch winger Tim Visser’s father – specifically to see yesterday’s match!
They’d spent Friday visiting RFU Twickenham, getting a guided tour of the stadium and the World Rugby Museum, and were planning to return to Holland on Monday.
It was only to be expected that, apart from the inevitable slight Dutch accent involved, their command of the English language was equal or superior to mine and I have to say that the twenty minutes or so I spent chatting to them about their club – and rugby in general – was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had at the Stoop this season. We laughed and joked, talked turkey … and basked in the comradeship of the all-embracing rugby ‘community’.
After yesterday’s extraordinary on-pitch dramas, I trust they felt they’d had fair value for their outlay and effort in coming so far for their first experience of the Stoop – and indeed the Harlequins playing in the flesh.
I’d gone to the match solo – having failed to attract (or in the end bother to trawl for) a companion to join me by taking my second season ticket – but it just goes to show you that attending a significant sporting event in a group is not the only way to enjoy a communal experience.
Based on yesterday, I shall certainly go to a match on my own again. Sometimes it feels better to suffer inwardly in silence than to attend with a guest and have to make polite conversation with them when the only rational topic for discussion to be had is that of your shared pain and frustration.