Saturday was a great sports viewing day. I had a cycle down to Hammersmith beforehand, before settling down for two big deciders for two of my favourite teams: Quins and Arsenal. (West Ham are on their hols already).
For Quins, the Premiership play off semi final was something of a bonus. For much of this season we have been just outside the top four. A young team, still learning to cope with the absence of international players during the Six Nations and with some cruel injuries to key players, especially in the centres and the front row. But, when Robshaw, Brown, Marler and Care returned from England duty, things picked up and the team won five successive matches at the end of the regular season. They included an excellent performance away to Sale, an absolute humdinger at home to Leicester on a Friday evening under the floodlights, and then, in the last game, a win against Bath in what was a winner-takes-all match.
That was last weekend. Bath were 4th and Quins were 5th going into the game. I’d got it into my head that Quins needed to end up a point ahead to get into the playoffs, as Bath had a superior points difference (that’s points for and against in the games as opposed to those awarded for results) over the season. And I watched the game with that in mind. Quins were never behind, but I thought they needed to be eight ahead so that Bath wouldn’t get a losing bonus point. The score was 19-16 to Quins, which until near the end, I thought wasn’t enough. But everyone was celebrating! Turned out points difference wasn’t the decider, but number of games won over the season. Quins were through. But I never felt tense as the game reached its conclusion, as I thought we weren’t going to get it, with the scores as they were. Strange!
The reward for the victory was a tie away to Saracens, league winners and awesome victors over Clermont in the Heineken semis. (See my Sportsthoughts 100). Didn’t have too much hope – except, that run of form…
Things started pretty well. Quins confounded Saracens with their game plan, which involved more kicking than usual, and some very aggressive defending. Even the brutal Jacques Burger was shaken by a tackle by the young (and slightly crazy) prop, Kyle Sinckler. At half time Quins were 19-11 up and looking good. But the second half was so different. Quins had a couple of opportunities, but nearly all the game seemed to be taking place in their half. Saracens slowly ground Quins down and won the half 20-0, for a 31-17 victory. Did Quins get anything wrong? No, I don’t think so. Saracens just sorted themselves out, upped a gear and were too good. They go forward to play Northampton in the final.
So, it’s a season when Quins went slightly backwards in terms of results, but, at the same time, brought through some really promising youngsters. Charlie Walker, until he got injured, was sensational on the wing, Kyle Sinckler looks the business at tighthead, though he needs to control his anger. Luke Wallace forced his way into the first choice team as flanker, playing either role, depending on whether Chris Robshaw was around. He must be in the England squad soon. Joe Trayfoot also looks good at flanker and Ollie Lindsay-Hague covered well for Mike Brown. And Dave Ward, though not exactly a youngster, was a revelation at hooker. Third choice at the beginning of the season, injuries gave him the opportunity to make his mark. His pace would be good enough for the back line and he is always winning turnovers. Rumours are that he will make the England tour to New Zealand this summer.
So it all feels good for the future, and with Marlon Yarde arriving from London Irish, the attack could be even better. But is the progress of the youngsters enough to get even with Saracens and Northampton, who both have so much power?
Who knows? Quins in rugby are a bit like Arsenal in the football. Putting faith in youth, trying to play the game the right way, the attacking way. But hitting the wall against the big spenders (notwithstanding the salary cap, which is supposed to even things out).
Oh yes, Arsenal. Top of the Premier League for longer than any other team this year. But finishing fourth after those calamitous defeats away to Liverpool and Chelsea and Everton. Something in their psyche for the biggest matches that makes them freeze early on. Hugely talented and in the end, a comfortable fourth, thus ensuring Champions League football once again. But so many questions about their ability to sustain a challenge for top place.
And so the FA Cup became their salvation. The chance to win a first trophy for nine years. Their progress to the final was helped by some easy ties, although they did beat Everton along the way. The semi final against Wigan was tortuous, won only on penalties.
A final against Hull was surely winnable, with relative ease. My prediction was 4-1.
So, of course, they were 2-0 down after ten minutes! More static defending, freezing when the pressure was on. It was almost 3-0, but for a Kieran Gibbs clearance off the line. Surely, against Hull, Arsenal wouldn’t capitulate as they had against Liverpool and Chelsea? Nervy times.
But this time they regrouped. Santi Cazorla got one back with an excellent free kick on 17 minutes, and from then on, Arsenal stepped up the pressure. By the second half, Hull looked out on their feet, struggling to keep up with the Arsenal passing in midfield. But Arsenal weren’t incisive at the last and so while they got an equaliser, they went to extra time. Finally, in the second half of that, Aaron Ramsey, Arsenal’s man of the match (run close by Cazorla) poked in the winner, after a good move. There were some scares before the end, but Arsenal were dominant and the game ran out 3-2.
And so Arsenal have finally won a trophy, if only the FA Cup, which Arsene Wenger used to treat with disdain, putting out weakened teams who often did well, but not well enough to win it. Beggars can’t be choosers any more. The League seems beyond them at the moment, so they have to aim lower.
So what next? It looks like Wenger will renew his contract, so will he change his ways and splash out on three or four really high quality players to strengthen the squad – and not all silky midfielders? The money appears to be there – it’s the will. One, or even two, strikers. A powerful holding midfielder, another solid centre back. A spine. The thing that Arsenal have lacked since the days of the Invincibles.
At the top of the Premier League and in Europe, just growing your own doesn’t work, unfortunately. So do Arsenal have the ambition to make the break and force their way into the party? Does Wenger? I’m doubtful. Much as I admire Arsene, I think he should use the FA Cup triumph to exit (or move upstairs) with dignity, leaving the way open for a coach with a more ruthless mindset. Otherwise I think Arsenal will remain great to watch and continue to come third or fourth.
As a West Ham fan, I would love such a fate for my team. But Arsenal should be doing more. Carrying the candle for good football AND being strong enough to win. They have done it before – they can do it again.
But a change has gotta come…