The Stoop, Friday 30th November @ 7.30pm: Harlequins A v Bristol United – final score Harlequins 3 Bristol United 21.
At the risk of repeating myself, English rugby’s Premiership ‘A’ league competition is a fascinating research tool for committed fans in terms of spotting developing young talent and assessing the match fitness of first team squad players returning from injury. As a general rule I try to make it to all Quins’ home fixtures – and maybe some away ones too if I can, albeit this will depend upon the travelling distance, what else I’ve got on and ultimately my mood on the night.
Bristol are still in the Championship – rugby’s second tier – having somehow contrived to lose out in the promotion play-offs in each of the last three seasons. Still, they now have big money behind them and, with both former England head coach Andy Robinson at the helm and Steve Borthwick now on their coaching staff (though there are strong hints that the latter is about to succumb to the lure of joining Eddie Jones in the new England set-up), they have a definite air of ‘going places’ about them. One of the oddities about elite English rugby is that – when a particular roll of the dice stopped – those clubs then in the Premiership, Bristol being one, became shareholders in Premiership Rugby Limited. As a result ever since Bristol has shared in the ongoing financial fortunes of Premiership Rugby even though they were last in the top tier as long ago as 2009.
The upshot is that Bristol are currently strong favourites for a play-off slot this term and thereby a potential return to the Premiership in 2016/2017.
There was rain in the air last night and there was an element of ‘shall I or shan’t I?’ at about 6.15pm – the point at which I happened to look at my diary and remind myself the game was on.
The final margin of Quins’ victory (30-21) gives a false impression – by half time (22-7) we were practically out of sight, having withstood a spirited Bristol opening and then clawed our way to pack supremacy and letting class do the rest. However Bristol then ‘won’ the second half 14-8 as the substitutions on both side flowed and Quins’ concentration seemed to waver.
The crowd wasn’t large, I should estimate about 2,500, and the atmosphere hardly fever-pitch, reminding me most of long ago midweek club training nights under floodlights. There were familiar faces everywhere, including a posse of first teamers queuing in the bar at half-time, but I chose to sit alone in a seat about seven rows from the front.
For Bristol their tight-head prop and number 13 centre threequarter caught the eye – sadly I cannot give you their names because I didn’t (and don’t) have access to their team-sheet.
For Quins, winger Ross Chisholm (wing threequarter) looked lightning fast once again – he’s in his late 20s now and has had a promising career blighted by a succession of serious injuries, including to both knees, but on this evidence he’s not far away from the first team squad.
With first teamers Ben Botica (fly half) and Matt Hopper (centre) somewhat marking time these days, Tim Swiel – freshly back for this season from South Africa following his three-months loan period at Quins last season – impressed more playing at full back, though he needs a bit more work upon his place kicking.
Quins academy forwards Seb Adeniran-Olule (hooker), Kiran Treadwell and Stan South (locks), and Henry Cheeseman (wing threequarter) all did well in this company but the stand-out amongst them until he tired somewhat in the second half was Archie White at Number 8.
On the road home afterwards, reflecting upon the proceedings, I was particularly struck by the sheer speed, physicality and intensity of what we’d been witnessing. Some of the hits was so seismic that the regular ‘thud’ of bodies coming together caused not a few audible sharp intakes of breath from those littering the stands including your reporter. Even if you could both rewind me back through the past forty years of gradual decline and then endow me with the requisite rugby talent and skills, I’m not at all sure that mentally I’d be up to playing professional rugby these days.