I feel I ought to begin my new column with a disclaimer.
I’ve been a committed fan of rugby Premiership club Harlequins F.C. for nearly a quarter of a century. Before that, even at my father’s knee, I was infused with the notion that – of all clubs – the Quins were the glamourous top-drawer boys who played attractive running rugby to which others could only aspire. Then there were the ludicrous multi-coloured shirts. To a small boy, taken to Twickenham Stadium for the first time for the annual Middlesex Sevens in the early 1960s, it seem self-evident that a team that chose, of its own free will, to wear such monstrosities must be very, very, good. Either that, or mad. Or possibly both. In a world of apparently restrictive uniformity, their very existence was addictively attractive to an impressionable kid.
That brings me to my point.
This is not an outward-looking rugby column, attempting to provide insight and comment upon the latest world news and trends in this greatest of all team games. Neither is it about making judgement calls upon rules, regulations, selections or predicting the outcome of matches at club or international level.
It’s just all about the fortunes of the Harlequins, one of the four supposedly-London-based sides, during another seasonal grind in the English Premiership.
We’re now two months and counting into 2013/2014 and Quins – sitting fifth in the league table – are on the cusp of something, though our fans are not quite sure what.
Although last year, relying upon our talented youngsters, we had won two trophies (the LV= Cup and the ‘A’ League), the first team had rather drifted away in the final two months. Opinion was divided as to whether this was caused by a combination of injuries and fatigue, or merely loss of form. In any event, it was exceedingly frustrating. Just as the season reached its mounting climax, instead of ‘pushing on’, Quins didn’t just so much fall off the pace as off the bloody cliff.
The malaise continued through the summer pre-season, when it came to playing practice matches top which the fans were admitted. Heavyweight prop James Johnston had departed for Saracens and news began to leak out of enforced retirements (lock enforcer Olly Kohn and flanker Will Skinner) and then a growing injury list.
Come September and Quins opened their season misfiring, barely able to get out of second gear. The scrum was plainly going to be a problem until we could get some of our sick list back playing.
Veteran Number 8 Nick Easter was forced to play at lock because there was nobody else. Nick Kennedy, brought in from Heineken Cup winners Toulon to replace Olly Kohn, arrived crocked. He was sent straight for an operation and then pronounced out until at least December, which seemed to fans to undermine the whole purpose of hiring him in the first place.
Quins possess an average Premiership squad size (41, including academy players) and, towards the end of September, had twelve of them unfit to play. But, worse, our backs were not delivering. There was plenty of hustle and bustle, but little midfield penetration. There were surfeits of bad passing, knock-ons, missed tackles and misunderstandings – all of which could be spotted instantly from the stands. If you’re winning, these fumblings don’t register. But if you’re losing it’s a different matter. These are supposedly professional players – what do they do all day if they cannot pull off the basics, such as simply catching the pill when it’s passed to them?!?
After four rounds of the Premiership, Harlequins had slipped into the bottom half of the table and some of our fair-weathered fans were beginning to press the panic button. We needed new players. The coaches weren’t doing their job. It was all the new Chief Executive’s fault for sacking ‘Mad Max’, our eccentric but entertaining PA announcer, and replacing him on the mike with a rugby-illiterate ‘all rounder’. By the time our injured players were available again, if ever, we’d be out of contention for everything bar the relegation dog-fight.
However. In the Heineken Cup group matches, on 20th October we travelled to play Clermont Auvergne away. Not much was expected, Clermont Auvergne hadn’t lost at home for over fifty matches. Quins indeed duly bent the knee (23-16) but posted a stirring second-half shift to gain a losing bonus point.
This effort signalled a turn-round of sorts. Since then we’ve beaten Sale Sharks (24-3) at home and Leicester Tigers away (23-16) in the Premiership and our ‘A’ League (second) team has crushed London Wasps 42-15, to qualify for a LV= Cup semi-final. We’re not yet out of the woods, but the confidence and ability to execute are returning.
Stick with me, and I’ll report further as season unfolds.