Big games for both my favourite teams yesterday. Quins were away to Saracens, the team they can never beat, at Wembley Stadium, of all places. If Saracens won they would go above Quins at the top of the rugby Premiership. West Ham were at home to Reading, the team that has knocked them out of the top two automatic promotion places in the football Championship (the second division). A Premier League place at stake. West Ham coming off a run of draws at home which has eroded belief; Reading on a run of something like eight wins out of none.
The nerves were jangling. To be completely honest, I thought Quins would probably lose to the grinding Saracens machine, but that West Ham would show what they are made of and get a vital win, to spark off a late season surge.
Er, wrong on both counts!
Let’s start with the positives. Quins at Wembley were magnificent. They beat Saracens 24-19. Saracens have played at Wembley five times previously, winning each time. They are a very strong side, with a hard South African core, but also some very promising young England players, Owen Farrell among them. While they can be dour, it’s that Saracens mentality which has been imparted to the new England team, giving us real hope for the future, especially now that Stuart Lancaster has been confirmed as the manager.
Quins yesterday were quite outstanding. They took on Saracens physically. They scored three superb tries, each one the product of a steady, sharp build up of phases and then the lightning strike. Textbook rugby.
This is Danny Care getting the third. Off-field problems forgotten!
And then, under intense pressure from Saracens, they defended unbelievably. Especially in the second half, in most of which they were a man, and sometimes two men down. The ref didn’t like something about Quins’ aggressive approach and dished out four yellow cards. Saracens’ sixteenth man? It felt like it, but it’s all about those grey areas in the rules. They will always be there in rugby. What can you and can’t you do when those rucks develop?
The defence by Quins was astonishing. Any number of try saving tackles. George Lowe, one of the centres, back from a long term injury, put in three amazing tackles, scored a try and deservedly got the man of the match award. But a couple of times we saw a prop (James Johnston) and a second row forward (George Robson) straining every sinew to keep up with attackers and bring them down just in time. Everyone was up for it.
This tackle looks a tad illegal!
Saracens will probably be asking themselves, how did we not win that? Quins will be marking it down as the performance of the season, in a season of great performances. One to give them great confidence for the rest of the season.
(Photos are copied from Google images. Getty Images photographers.)
Nick Easter pursued by four Saracens! Robbo, as ever, in close support.
Joe Marler modelling his latest hairstyle. Man or monster?
Ugh, but what a contrast to West Ham! The squad, without question, has to be the best in the division. It was improved in the January window, especially to bring in more firepower – Vaz Te, Maynard. It looked promising. But they are stalling, especially at home, where draws have become commonplace. The fans get edgy quickly, not really buying into Sam Allardyce’s crude tactics, which are safety first with plenty of long balls up to the big man. Not always – they’ve played some decent football at times – but it is Big Sam’s default strategy. 4-5-1, morphing into 4-3-3 when he feels brave, 4-4-2 when he gets desperate.
I’m forever blowing bubbles…
The Hammers fans are not happy. In fairness, we are not easily satisfied. We cling to the myth about the flowing football of the past, the Academy of football. There have been times when the football was outstanding. I remember the early eighties, when I went to all the home games, when Brooking and Devonshire unleashed the likes of Goddard, MacAvennie and Cottee. But we started that period in the Second Division! The Moore/Hurst/Peters era, the halcyon days of the sixties and early seventies, never saw a league place higher than sixth. The best manager we have had in recent times, Alan Curbishley, who saved us from relegation and then got us to tenth in the Premier League, essentially was ousted because the fans got bored.
So yesterday’s game was crucial. If we won we would overtake Reading. It would be the launch pad for the run in. We lost 4-2 at home! Dominated the first half apparently and let in two goals just before half time. Never really looked like winning in the second half. Are Reading really better than West Ham? Well, right now the answer has to be yes.
Reading’s first goal goes in…
So four points behind, the playoffs beckon, although Southampton lost at Blackpool, so there is still plenty to play for. But it feels like there has been a turning point. Big Sam has started lashing out at his critics – the fans. The away hardcore, in Peterborough, last Tuesday, were singing ironically – or was it plaintively? – “We play it on the ground”. Sam’s response was that some fans were “deluded”. He may well be right. But when you start to dispute things with the fans, it is usually the beginning of the end. See Roy Hodgson at Liverpool last season.
The playoffs for Quins and West Ham have a very different tenor.
For Quins it will mean they are in the top four, fighting for the Premiership prize. They are in with a good shout of being top two now, six points ahead of Saracens and the lurking Leicester at the moment. That would give us a home semi final. Shame that you don’t just win the league by coming first, but I understand why the playoffs were introduced. Mainly for the money, obviously, but it is fair to those sides who lose so many players during the Six Nations, and indeed, the World Cup this season. Leicester, more than any other team, lose so many. And look at them now. Whupped Worcester, 43-13, with seven tries, on Friday. Looking very dangerous.
For West Ham, the playoffs mean failure. Chucking away an automatic spot. Dragged into the dogfight with three other teams, all desperate to hit the jackpot that is the Premier League. If you make the final, so much is at stake, money-wise. For West Ham, it is tied in with the putative move to the Olympic Stadium. That won’t be much of a draw if they are stuck in a lower division. High stakes indeed. The nerves will be shredded, although we might draw comfort from the last time, in 2005, when we only just sneaked into sixth place (beating Reading on goal difference), but then outclassed Ipswich in the semis and Preston in the final.
I think we all need to give Big Sam our full support. West Ham – the whole club – was traumatised when we went down. He has turned it around, instilling a real professionalism to the way things are conducted. Things have gone a bit wrong lately, but there is time to get back on track. Southampton and Reading will feel the pressure too. Anything could happen. Should we fail to go up this season, we should be even stronger next season. If we want to be.
It’s time to stick together, play for the team, to believe.
Follow the example of Harlequins.