6th October 2015: Harlequins 16 Sale Sharks 14.
Anyone who failed to make the trek to south-west London last night for this (7.45pm kick-off) first match of Round 4 of rugby union’s Aviva Premiership 2015-2016 season can consider themselves lucky.
I know I do.
Let me explain.
I live a fair way from the Stoop and my pre-match routine over the past fifteen seasons has been to drive my car to the corner of Twickenham Green, location of the Prince Blucher and Sussex Arms pubs, where I park my car in some near-by side street and then walk (after a sherbert or two in one of said hostelries, or indeed not) to the ground.
I do this because it’s a damned sight quicker (and most importantly, easier in terms of a getaway later) than parking in the Rosebine car park adjacent to the ground off the A316 dual carriageway.
There you have pay to get in and then, after the match, take part in a laborious vehicle mini-gridlock process of converging from all points of the grass towards the exit in order to get back onto the A316. Having managed that, if you live in town as I do, your best/only bet is to head out – south – towards the M3 for about half a mile in nose-to-tail traffic in order to do a 360 degree turn at the first roundabout and then go back up said A316 (on the opposite carriageway) back past the Stoop on your way into central London.
Last night I arrived in good time as usual and snuck off into my network of side-roads to drop the car off. And couldn’t.
I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice it to say that, after 25 minutes of driving around without being able to find a legal place to park (I’d even gone around Twickenham Green, back towards Twickenham to the point where I’d have had to walk half a mile just to get to the Sussex Arms) I got so fed up that I drove straight home again, parked up and just had time to pour myself a stiff drink, fire up the quadrophonic sound system and sit down in front of the television to catch the last ten minutes of the build-up before watching the match live on BT Sport.
I won’t lie. In all the time I’ve been a Quins season ticket holder there have been a small number of occasions (countable on the fingers of one hand) when I’ve had trouble finding a parking spot but – even if after ten minutes of driving around – I’ve always previously managed to find somewhere to slot the car.
Last night was the first time ever that I haven’t. It really bugged me. I pay plenty of money for my season ticket, I’d arranged to meet up with some pals in a bar at the ground before the game, and I was effectively prevented from attending a Quins game for the first time in my life by a parking issue.
I know the reason. Because of the filthy weather, every supporter and his dog had opted on the night to travel to the match by car (instead of public transport) simply in order to remain dry.
Okay, that’s the rant over.
It gives me no pleasure at all to report that the one positive aspect of the entire episode was that the game was a Grade A stinker.
The rain and slippery pitch conditions had something to do with it, of course, but the fact is – with the excitements of the Rugby World Cup still echoing in the memory – the Aviva Premiership currently has a golden opportunity to build upon the attendant feel-good factor and in those terms sadly last night’s effort was a massive disappointment.
An advertisement for the joys of Northern Hemisphere rugby it was not.
The BT Sports boys (Martin Bayfield, Lawrence Dallaglio, Ugo Monye and Nick Mullins, with assistance from Jamie Roberts and James Horwill) did their best. Via thumping music, video trickery razamataz and pre-match interviews with the head coaches, they did their best to build up what was heralded as the opening shot in a weekend of Premiership rugby brilliance.
Then came the first whistle by referee Tim Wrigglesworth and the hype balloon was terminally punctured.
To be honest, the better team on the night lost – and that’s a one-eyed Quins fan’s verdict.
Sale, apart from occasional touches of flair from fly half Danny Cipriani, are a pedestrian, dull, but now worthy mid-table team. Head coach Steve Diamond has, after two or three failures on the way, now built them into a force not to underestimate by following the Exeter route of Rob Baxter – hiring big tough guys without airs and graces who work hard and buy into a culture of graft combined with giving little or nothing away.
None of the other teams, whether high and mighty or just plain feeble, looks forward to playing them.
Such rugby as did occur in the first half came from the visitors. If their discipline had been better by the break they’d have been out of sight. Cipriani – not a favourite player of mine, but that’s simply a personal quirk – was in the groove as a playmaker, popping up here and there in moves and, when nothing was on (and even sometimes when something was) manoeuvring his troops around the park with a series of deft, raking, kicks to the touchline that gained twenty to forty yards at a time.
In contrast Quins had seemingly reverted to last season’s dire mode – lacklustre, going through the motions, making far too many technical errors, no dynamism, default position ‘on the back foot’.
They improved after the break (no doubt a dose of the hairdryer treatment had its effect) and with 20 minutes to go were 16-7 to the good. However, any outlandish hope in the breasts of Quins supporters that they’d push on to notch a 4-try bonus point victory was roundly dashed as Sale came back into it, reduced the deficit to 2 points via a second converted try and then were going at it toe-to-toe for the last 9 minutes.
Either side could have won.
The best thing that Quins could take from the game is that, though they played poorly, at least they still took 4 points for the win – over the past decade I could list tens of matches in which they’ve been the better team and yet lost – and now stand temporary second in the table until the other Round 4 matches take place this weekend.
With hindsight, I’m looking on the bright side. My debacle over car parking and failing to get to the game may just have been a blessing in disguise.
When the final whistle blew (not long before 10.00pm) I was already at home in the relative comfort of my sitting room and not facing a longish walk to my car in the wet blustery conditions and then a forty-minute drive to get back there.