Heineken Cup quarter final weekend. The European rugby elite go head to head: Clermont Auvergne v Montpellier, Saracens v Ulster, Toulon v Leicester… and Quins v Munster. Clermont, Sarries and Toulon all won.
And Quins were ambushed, on and off the field.
On the field, Quins haven’t been in the best of form recently. In the Premiership they’ve lost three games on the trot: woefully at home to Exeter, outplayed by Saracens at their place and then unluckily, 15-17 away to Gloucester 9 days ago. Meanwhile though, they won the LV Cup (the closest thing to the FA Cup in football) playing with a mix of youngsters and one or two experienced players. They played some exhilarating rugby in the semi finals against Bath and the final against Sale – encouragement for the future.
But today was the start of what we love to call “the business end” of the season. ‘Squeaky bum time” in the words of Sir Alex Ferguson.
I fancied our chances against Munster. They are not quite the force they were and have been in poor form in the Pro 12 League for the top Irish, Scottish, Welsh and Italian teams. Having said that, they know how to win Heineken Cups: twice winners in the twenty-first century.
And they demonstrated all that knowledge today. They had a basic game: win the set piece, especially the lineouts, defend with ferocity, and the points will come. They executed it superbly, especially in the second half. Quins huffed and puffed but never really got their running game going, even though the pitch was hard and the sun was shining. Munster were so dominant at the lineout, that Quins seemed to become confused about what to do when they had penalties. And seeds of doubt quickly grow into poor decision-making, ball spillage, a loss of focus. The second half was nearly all Munster after Quins went in 9-6 up at half time. The final score was 18-12 – all penalties. Barely a sniff of a try-scoring opportunity at either end. That showed that Quins’ defence was functioning; there was just no real spark in attack. No pace in a usually pacey team. Strangely, little was done to rectify this. Ben Botica was left on the bench, Matt Hopper only got on for the last five minutes. Luke Wallace, young hero of recent weeks, didn’t even make the bench. Most unlike Conor O’Shea not to give himself the options and try something different when the game plan wasn’t working.
So, on the field, Quins were outwitted – ambushed by the most basic of rugby strategies. Setpiece and physicality. Still a bit naive in this competition? Lessons to be learned for next season.
But the club was ambushed off the field too. I sit, with my friend Jon, and our kids, in the Etihad stand, side on, near the centre. The general area is pretty much Quins’ home end, with the stand on the other side similar. It’s usually pretty noisy and spurs the players on. Well, it was certainly noisy today, but most of the noise was from Munster fans. They had about half the seats and took the place over. How did this happen? It never would in football.
It started when we season ticket holders got a message that our usual seats wouldn’t be available as they were part of the allocation for the ERC, the competition organisers. But we would get priority on-line booking for other seats. That sort of worked, except if you had the same customer number for all your season tickets (normal if you pay for your child’s ticket!) you could only book one on-line and then chance your arm by email and a return phone call. In the end I managed to get three tickets, but they were scattered around. I think many others experienced something similar. So the Harlequins fanbase was scattered.
Meanwhile where did all those ERC tickets go? Well, judging by the fact that our seats were occupied by Munster fans and by the fact that they occupied half the central seats and many more besides, I can only conclude that some of them may have found their way to the Munster fans. Fair play to them – if you want to support your team and can afford it, you’ll do what you can to acquire tickets. We also had surprisingly high attendances at the Exeter game and the LV semi final against Bath. I believe that anyone who’d been to a home game previously had some kind of priority for Quins v Munster, once season ticket holders had had their chance.
I think that Munster fans, like their Leinster counterparts, know how to get tickets for big games after years of experience. And having big fanbases in London probably helps too. Again, Quins a bit naive, still learning.
Next time we have a home quarter final, maybe the Club’s executive will do everything to put their own fans first.
I have to say that the Munster fans were pretty magnificent, and for the first time since I’ve been attending Quins regularly, which is about five years, it felt like the away fans had won the noise battle. That must have helped the Munster team, in what was a close game. While Munster had most possession, one break for a try and conversion could still have won Quins the game late on.
I don’t feel angry about the team performance. They gave their all, in a really tough, physical game, but were just beaten by a better team on the day. But I do feel angry about the ticket situation and the consequent balance of support in the most important game of the season. Just hope lessons are learned.
Anyway, the season rolls on. We are still in the Premiership top four, although the chance of first or second has slipped away with recent results. Sarries and Leicester are lined up for the first two and we are battling it out with Northampton and Gloucester for the other two play off places. And our last game of the regular season is… Northampton.
Those bums are going to keep on squeaking!