Winter’s drawing in, the darkness comes early, there’s a deep chill in the air. A perfect excuse for staying at home all Saturday afternoon and watching Sky Sports’ rugby coverage, with a dip in and out to check the football.
And then on Sunday, the big one, Quins at Toulouse, having been taught a lesson at the Stoop the previous weekend. Lose and that’s it as far as the Heineken is concerned this season.
I did a bit of shopping Saturday lunch time, enjoyed a bacon sandwich in the Poco Loco in Ealing Broadway and made my way back for a triple header. Some Christmas decorations to put up, but otherwise, rugby, rugby, rugby until we went out to a party in the evening. The kids all out and about, so no competition for the telly. Sky Sports HD here I come!
First up was Leicester vs Clermont Auvergne. The previous week the French team had beaten Leicester emphatically, 30-12. I watched the game, saw the array of international players in Clermont’s team, after seeing Toulouse beat Quins, and thought, we can’t cope with the money in French rugby. But back at Leicester it was always going to be different. The game was intense, brutal, the lead changing hands, some good running rugby, but mostly an epic forward battle. My lasting image of the game is Leicester’s hirsute Italian, Martin Castrogiovanni (great name), front row forward, piling into the Clermont defence again and again with no regard for personal safety. It’s the role of the forward ball carrier. The day job. But it seemed mighty, heroic. Leicester took their cue from him and scraped through, 23-19.
Next was the other game in Quins’ group, Gloucester vs Connacht. The Irish team are regarded as one of the weaker teams in the competition, but they gave Quins a fright at the Stoop, and they did the same at Gloucester. In fact they were ahead for most of the game, looking good. But then, what was it, fitness, nerve, ability? All three? Gloucester got back into the game and edged through. 23-19, same as the Leicester-Clermont game.
And then it was Leinster vs Bath in Dublin. Leinster are the best team in Europe at the moment. And it showed. They tore Bath to pieces. Every aspect of their game was awesome. They won 52-27. Bath got some late points when Leinster took their foot off the gas. It was as comprehensive a victory as you will get between teams from the top leagues. It’s hard to see who can stop Leinster winning another Heineken Cup. Quins? Let’s dream on.
And so on to today’s game. After the defeat at home last week, it didn’t seem that likely that Quins could get a result in Toulouse. But a bit of me felt, Quins will learn, Toulouse may get complacent, the French are always capable of falling apart (national stereotype comment)… and Quins are very good. 100% win record before the Toulouse game. You don’t lose that overnight.
I didn’t watch the game live. I wanted to go for a cycle while the weather was good and then had to do the Waitrose run. But I managed to avoid the result and settled down to watch the game at 7pm.
It was amazing. Quins were under the cosh for so much of the time. Toulouse are big and brutal. Their scrum is more powerful. But Quins held on and were incredibly sharp every time an opportunity arose. Their defence was astounding. Tries were prevented at the last gasp, tackles forced potential try scorers into touch, bodies somehow put themselves in the way of touchdowns in the try line pile ups. It was the stuff that will enter into Quins’ folklore.
And Quins scored three tries, all grasping the opportunity, great passing, sharp lines of running, chasing down the high balls. The latter featured Tom Williams, on as a sub, having not featured much in the team this year, great player though he is. There was anger in the energy that he showed when he came on, and he made a couple of interventions which helped to win the game, including the chase down on Vincent Clerc, after a kick off from Nev.
Who were the heroes? Well the whole team. But every time we won a turnover, Chris Robshaw seemed to be at the heart of it. As he always is. George Robson made an unbelievable tackle to stop Servat getting a try, Nick Easter was doing all sorts of clever things, some probably not legal, and he did eventually get a yellow card. But I’d probably make full back Mike Brown man of the match, as he has been so often this season. Not only did he score two superb tries, appearing in the line at the perfect moment, but he made an outstanding try-saving tackle on Vincent Clerc, who looked like he was through in the second half.
And Nick Evans was amazing, as ever. In the objective points discussion, he would be the man of the match. Kicked almost everything, whereas Toulouse missed a number of sitters, McAlister and then Doussain. In fact, Quins were a bit lucky, because Toulouse had enough penalties to win the game quite easily. But they blew them. The intensity of the game at Heineken level exposes any weaknesses in temperament.
So come on you Quins!
But also, four immense games of rugby. Intense, physical, twisting and turning, the different cultures coming together. Magnificent competition. And played in a spirit that football could really learn from, if it wanted to.