I have a lot of fun blogging about how good Quins are. So here’s one for balance. Second defeat in three at home. The first was 16-17 against a resurgent Wasps. Not a great performance, but a game that could have gone either way. In between, brilliant victories at home to Leicester (see Sportsthoughts 64) and away to Sale. So no cause for panic, but something isn’t quite right.
Now it would be easy to blame it on the loss of five key players to the Six Nations: Robshaw, Care, Marler and Brown to England, Kohn to Wales. And yesterday, when the pressure was on, we did miss Chris Robshaw’s all-action leadership, Mike Brown’s marauding from full back and Danny Care’s probing and pace. But it was still a strong team – there’s depth in the squad and loads of good youngsters coming through.
One could also just write it off as a bad day at the office – it happens. And Exeter are maybe a bit of a bogey team. They beat us at their place too. And fair play to them: they were good yesterday. Took us on at our own running game in the first half and then turned the screw in the second half with some real precision kicking from fly half, Gareth Steenson, which pinned the boys back in their own half.
Before the game, when the teams were warming up, we saw Steenson practising his kicks. Not aiming between the posts: he was positioned out wide virtually on the try line, aiming for the width of the post. And he was getting close. We didn’t watch for long – our thoughts were on a nice pint of IPA in the bar – but I bet he connected at some point. Practice makes perfect. His kicking during the game was as good as it gets.
The ref didn’t help Quins either. No complaints about balance – he penalised both sides equally. But just about every scrum, and much of the breakdown, led to penalties or free kicks. He was super-fussy. So the game had no flow, and Quins’ game is based on tempo. It was hard to get any with Mr Rose.
No, for me, the loss stemmed most of all – notwithstanding Steenson’s brilliance – from a mini identity crisis… or two. Both possibly the result of just a touch of complacency – like maybe we could try things out against mid-table Exeter. Well, no, we couldn’t.
Identity crisis (1). No 8, Nick Easter, playing in the second row. Now, of course he did a decent enough job, being such a good all-round player. But all those crafty hands from the back of the scrum, those surges and offloads, just weren’t as much in evidence. He had less freedom.
Identity crisis (2). Who was running the game, Nick Evans or Ben Botica? The question arose when Ollie Lindsay-Hague, playing full back, had to go off, injured after about twenty minutes, after a surge down the left wing. George Lowe could have been brought on as a winger, with Tom Williams going to full back. Instead Botica came on, and instead of playing full back, went to fly half, with Nev going to full back. So who was running the game now: Nev or Ben? Who’d take the kicks?
The first penalty that came our way was quite a way out. Just on the edge of Nev’s range. Easily within Ben’s range. Nev asserted himself (rightly, as the main man, maybe not so having ceded the fly half role). Direction good, but fell just short. Murmurs that Ben should have taken it. Uncertainty. Who’s in charge?
Next up was in Nev’s range, but Ben took it. Missed. Six points lost.
For the rest of the game, Ben took most of the penalties for three points, but after a while Nev took most of the other kicks. No harm in that, but it didn’t feel planned. Nev, at full back, faded from the game, marginalised. Not something you’d ever say about Mike Brown. Or, for that matter, Nev.
So, as the second half progressed, Steenson’s kicking started to pin Quins into their own half. The return quicks weren’t as good. And the running was hampered by some inaccurate passing and poor handling. Matt Hopper, usually brilliant, seemed to be involved in most of the worst errors and was eventually substituted. Not that George Lowe changed much when he came on. He couldn’t.
Despite all of this, Quins stayed ahead for most of the game – Ugo Monye having scored an excellent try early on – until the last quarter. That’s when their superior fitness and skill – and forward power – usually takes its toll on the opposition. Not today. Exeter gained the upper hand. Steenson engineered a try for one of the second rowers, Damian Welch, and then, with five minutes left, Quins completely mucked up a kick out from the 25 and let the Exeter full back, Luke Arscott run in for another try.
Around where we were sitting, some of the die-hard fans were really angry, and stormed off before the game ended. I would never do that myself – I think you should always stick it out until the whistle goes. Support the team through thick and thin. But it showed how frustrating things had got. And what a great job Exeter had done on us. I’m sure it’s a blip, and maybe a useful kick up the backside for any of the players who have started to believe their own publicity. But we must make sure that identity crisis doesn’t develop into anything bigger.
It’s interesting. Nick Evans is one of the best players in the Premiership, and was voted as the best by his fellow professionals last season. There was great relief when, recently, he agreed a new two year contract, despite interest from France and Japan. And yet, there is now a young pretender, Ben Botica, who has been outstanding when Nev has been injured, or when the games don’t warrant his presence (the LV Cup mainly). Ben is the long term future, so must play enough not to get frustrated and leave.
It’s a good conundrum for the management, having two great fly halves. But also a challenge to keep both happy – and to avoid the loss of direction we saw against Exeter on Saturday.
It always has to be clear who is in charge.