This has been a hard, gruelling season for Harlequins – I’m talking for the fans, never mind the players – and there’s still no end to the nightmare. Yesterday I strapped myself in for the ordeal of watching live on BT Sport as we racked up our twelfth consecutive Premiership loss to Saracens, this time 42-14 in front of a world record club match attendance of 84,068 at Wembley Stadium.
Yes, it was a bad as those bald facts suggest, in fact worse.
The honest truth is that masochism and despair are never far below the surface for supporters of any sports club and, after the past two years we’ve endured, it’s time for Quins fans to hit the panic button. In the normal course of events, runs of sporting bad form are only to be expected – just as long as they come to an end, preferably long enough before the end of the season for the team to restore some pride and hope for next term.
Last season Quins were mediocre from October onwards, bar a five match post-Six Nations run that saw us creep into the play-offs by a whisker, whereupon we surrendered meekly in our semi-final.
This season we have just never got going and now never will. Yesterday was a new nadir of sorts – the team played as if it was willing the season to end as much as the fans are.
At some point in the future, history will judge this period of Quins fortunes thus. In 2011/2012, as underdogs, the club won the Premiership and seemed on the verge of establishing itself as a major force in European rugby going forward. Since then, however, it has slid progressively backwards. There’s a glib saying about economics, to the effect that there are as many economic theories as there are economists. That’s also how it is for sports fans and reasons for failure when things aren’t going well … and not all of them can be wrong.
Bar our All Black fly half Nick Evans, without whom our successes – not least the Premiership title – would have been but pie in the sky, we have mostly relied upon promoting home grown (academy) talent. We like to play in a much-admired attractive, all-action attacking style but the trouble is that other teams soon analysed it, worked out both how to play in similar fashion but also how to counter it … and moved on. Quins haven’t.
One key, from my perspective, is the fundamental that sports-tactics constantly evolve, develop and improve in effectiveness. Season on season, anyone who stands still is ultimately going backwards – and this applies equally to teams and individual players. And that’s what Quins have done.
I’m not suggesting that Conor O’Shea and his coaching staff, or indeed the players, have been complacent, but watching them play since 20111/2012 an impartial onlooker might be forgiven for thinking it. There’s no perceived progression, in fact no Plan B. Season after season Quins just seem to have been playing ‘the Quins way’ faster, harder and more intensively … whilst hoping or believing that, because it once took us to the top of the tree, it’s only a matter of time before it does so again … and (hard as it may be to take) this strategy is just not working, even assuming it ever would.
In elite sport, good intentions count for little. Ultimately all that matters are the results.
This season the bulk of the Quins coaching staff, who have changed little – and (one could argue) worked wonders, over the past seven seasons, have all had their contracts renewed. By definition this is a mistake in my view. A change or two every so often freshens things up, brings a new perspective.
Generally, this season the team has proved itself to be under-powered. The pack gets beaten up too often, the backs suffer from lack of confidence and a total absence of penetration and grunt in midfield. A run of bad form leads inevitably to loss of confidence and skills letting you down, supposed bad ‘rubs of the green’ and things just not going your way. We’ve now reached the stage where there’s no end to this ‘down’ feeling in sight.
Take yesterday. I never thought I’d live to see Quins’ defence as weak and porous. We were outgunned in every department. Wayne Barnes, one of my favourite referees when he’s not officiating Quins matches, seemed to have it in for us (again) and on two (or was it three?) occasions Chris Robshaw gave away ten metres for back-chat … and separately Nick Easter was also regularly giving Barnes ear-ache about supposed injustices. That’s not Quins, well not normally.
Take nothing away from them, yesterday Saracens – the ‘team I most love to hate’ – were magnificent and expertly schooled. They were big, fit and ruthless. Their wings Chris Ashton and (former Quin) David Strettle looked world class every time they touched the ball. There was hardly a position in which their chosen player was not better than ours.
As for Quins, time to point the finger. Joe Marler is anonymous as captain. Chris Robshaw – who may be suffering from his Six Nations efforts – looked completely knackered and played like an average club squad member, not an international captain. Marland Yarde, our much-vaunted signing from London Irish, has done little this season. Lock Charlie Matthews, one of my biggest ‘hopes for the future’, has sadly proved to be a lightweight. Centre Matt Hopper was uniformly poor and Harry Sloan, his fellow midfielder, looked out of sorts for someone with so much potential.
We also kicked away far too much ball, a terrible tactic against Saracens who are kings of the up & under and then chase. They kept returning our hopeful and ill-directed punts with interest, so why did we persist with giving the ball away in this fashion?
About a month ago I received my package of ‘membership (season ticket) renewal’ paperwork. I’ve done nothing about it yet and am seriously thinking about whether I ever will.