The Heineken Cup is back! A sure sign that autumn is upon us. A chance to relish those clashes with the French and Irish, to measure how far the Quins have come. Champions of England… now can they win the ultimate prize? Which probably means, can they beat Leinster?
The Quins had a fairly forgiving draw in the group stage this time. The main threat Biarritz, from the French Basque country. Otherwise Connacht from Ireland and Zebre from Italy – Parma, I think. There’s a tempting away trip there! Connacht can’t be dismissed, even though they are the weakest of the Irish teams. They did, after all, scupper Quins’ progress last season, beating them in the final game in a stormy Galway. But I’ll tempt fate and say Quins are a stronger, hardened team now. A team that knows it can win the big prizes.
So, the first match was the home game against Biarritz this Saturday. The big challenge straight away, though Biarritz were missing a number of key players, like Yachvili and Harinordoquy. Quins coming off a two match losing run – Saracens and Exeter. Grounds for concern. The atmosphere was good. 6pm start for the TV. Floodlights on, stadium nearly full. Surprisingly few Biarritz supporters, compared with, say, when we’ve drawn Toulouse or Stade Francais. But hopes high, even if those two losses had sown a few seeds of doubt.
Quins came roaring out of the blocks and got an early try, with a clever pass by Chris Robshaw, to Danny Care, who darted through a rather sleepy Biarritz defence. Nev converted. Looking good.
But Biarritz started to claw their way back into it. Their forwards looked strong, although Quins were matching them. They aren’t a classic French running team, Biarritz. Their tactics were pretty ugly. Big kicks, sucking the opposition into a forward battle. And pretty dirty. Their Aussie centre, Dane Haylet-Petty, was sin-binned for taking out Tom Williams while he was still in the air, catching one of those big kicks. But there was a lot of rough stuff going on. At the heart of it was second row, Dubarry, a man with a beard that made him look like he should be playing guitar in ZZ Top! And of course our very own Joe Marler was getting involved in the shenanigans, though fortunately yellows were avoided.
Biarritz scored a penalty to make it 7-3 and then a moment which changed the game. Nick Evans made a break, was taken down, and didn’t get up. Looked like an ankle injury. The medic strapped it, but it was clear that he was gone. He stayed on for a couple of minutes, but it was futile. On came young Ben Botica, son of the great New Zealand rugby league player, Frano Botica, who had a few seasons at Wigan. Ben started with Quins this season, though a knowledgeable fan in the row in front of us said that we’d already agreed to sign him and he spent last season with a French lower league team. What was interesting was that he had moved ahead of Rory Clegg as the deputy fly half. We were about to see why…
Quins did wobble with the loss of Nev. Botica took the score to 10-3 with a penalty, but in the last fifteen minutes or so of the half, Biarritz started to look strong. They scored a pushover try which was converted and then took the lead with a penalty. Botica converted another penalty for Quins, leaving the score at 13-13 at half time. There was a sense that we were a bit lucky still to be at evens. The forward battle had swung in their favour and that is where games are won and lost.
Something amazing happened at half time though! Either Conor O’Shea gave the team talk of his life, or the management spotted some Biarritz weaknesses to exploit, or the Quins forwards just tweaked some technical aspects of their game. Maybe all three. Whatever, Quins came out in the second half and just blew Biarritz away! 27 points to nil in the second half.
It was the Quins forwards who set out the stall. Suddenly they were pushing the Biarritz scrum back at every opportunity. Early on there was a “rolling maul” – something which gets the crowd going more than just about anything – which rolled on to near the Biarritz try line. A few more manoeuvres and hooker Rob Buchanan was over for the try. Botica converted (again). And then, a moment when he declared, anything Nick Evans can do I can do better. From very close to the half way line – beyond Nev’s normal range – he smashed a kick over. I think this was the moment when the crowd went: we have a new star. We are going to win this game. I think the team felt that too. Ben Botica is the real deal. His kicking is immense. He absolutely whacks the ball, whether a penalty, conversion or kick to touch. He has a short back lift but really powerful follow through. He wellies it. A contrast to Nev, who strokes the ball, caresses it over the posts. And again, his preparations for a kick are short and to the point. None of the arm alignment favoured by Nev and the great Jonny Wilkinson. Just a drop of the shoulders, a deep breath no doubt, and a few short steps before… boom!
I know it’s only one match, but I reckon every Quins fan at the Stoop was thinking the same: we have seen the future, post Nev. And it looks good!
From that moment Quins were rampant. Danny Care was at his buzzing, searing best – as he was in the first half too.
Nick Easter was doing all his crafty stuff, and no-one quibbled with his man of the match award (though I might have given it to Danny). Ben Botica dazzled with his running and handling as well as his kicking. Mike Brown gained the yards as ever. Matt Hopper showed flashes of his speed. Jordan Turner-Hall just powered through, taking the hits for the team, as he always does. The forwards collectively were on a high and totally dominated the opposition. Two more tries came – Jordan Turner-Hall and late on, substitute wing, Seb Stegmann, to get the bonus point.
That second half was the best Quins have played this season, and against serious opposition.
A really encouraging display from the boys. A performance that demonstrated that they have all the skills. When it needed ugly forward power in response to the French challenge, they delivered. When it needed penetration and fast handling from the backs, they delivered. When they needed to recover from the loss of Nick Evans they – Ben Botica – did it.
That is going to be the most exciting thing to take away from this game. We have a new fly half who is going to be the business!
Sometimes you just know…
(All photos taken from Google Images)