Yesterday we watched what must have been the best game of rugby at the Stoop since when? Maybe when we beat Leicester 32-12 in January 2015? My friend Jon was suggesting the heroics against Stade Francais in 2008! After last season’s overall decline, this game, more than any so far, showed the team is back amongst the best. Saracens were top of the Premiership, having won every league game so far. They looked back to their brutal best. Dour, based on winning the set piece, but winners. Everyone else hates them, but it sure is effective. (Until the same style is translated to international level – see England failures, dominated by Saracens management philosophy and often, selections).
Quins have been playing well this season. They got their England players back early because of the World Cup failure, but not surprisingly, some of them took a while to get back to their best. In fact, yesterday was when it really happened. They bought well in the summer: seasoned internationals like Adam Jones (Wales) and James Horwill (Australia) in the forwards, Tim Visser (Scotland) and Jamie Roberts (Wales) in the backs. Combined with the maturing of some of the excellent youngsters, after last year’s tough season, the squad now looks really strong, and deep. The greatest excitement is over Jack Clifford, who has been England Under-20 captain and seems like an anointed future captain of the senior side. He seems to be able to play anywhere in the back row, although No 8 may be his best position, and he has strength, intelligence and real pace. He is now one of the favourites with the Quins crowd – we are willing him into the England team!
The game yesterday was a real test. The top team in the league, who have had the hex over us for a while. Last season, Saracen’s visit was the lowest point – a 39-0 defeat. Embarrassing. So this was the moment to gauge our progress. I thought we could do it, though I accepted that there was a degree of wishful thinking in my assessment. Some of our gang thought a losing bonus point would be a good return. That is probably what the bookies would have said. Time for the reckoning…
The game started with Quins on the offensive, but in an early breakdown James Horwill was judged by the referee to have taken out opposite second row George Kruis with his arm and got a yellow card. Kruis did suffer a knockout blow and the game was delayed for nearly ten minutes as he was carefully tended to and put onto a stretcher. I guess at this point the Saracens fans would have been accusing Quins of being the dirty team. Of course we disagreed, thinking it was a harsh decision. Sympathy to Kruis though, and I hope he makes a full recovery in time to play his part in the forthcoming Six Nations for England. A good player.
In the ten minutes Horwill was off, Saracens asserted their dominance at the scrum, but Quins held it up, sometimes illegally, without getting anyone else yellow-carded. I suspect that showed that the ref thought he may have over-reacted to the earlier offence. Saracens did score a try eventually and converted it. Then they got another penalty, which Owen Farrell missed. At 10-0 down, I’m not so sure Quins would have been on for a win. Even at 7-0, and with the pressure on, the fear of another thrashing was there.
But Quins rallied and scored two brilliant tries before half time. One came from a lineout where Danny Care took some quick ball from Charlie Matthews and broke through the Saracens defence. He passed to hooker, Rob Buchanan, who finished it off. It looked like a training ground move that worked to perfection. Then, after Saracens hit back with another forward-powered try from Billy Vunipola, Quins scored an outstanding try, created, above all, by winger Marlon Yarde’s mazy and powerful run through the centre of Saracen’s defence. Marlon has had his sceptics since he joined Quins from London Irish a couple of years ago, but I’ve always liked him, and yesterday was one of his best performances. Back in that first Eddie Jones England squad? Should be. The try was finished off by the ubiquitous Jack Clifford. He took a knock to the head and went off, but returned after the obligatory medical check after half time.
So from a position when they were mostly under the kosh, Quins went in at half time 15-14 ahead. Playing proper rugby – fast, ball-in-hand, getting it wide: the sort that entertains the fans and works at international level. Saracens were simply the usual grim efficiency. I feel sorry for the likes of Owen Farrell and Alex Goode, who don’t get a lot of scope to express themselves in the Saracens framework until and unless they are well ahead on points. And this damages England because they are not in an adventurous outfit week-in-week-out.
The second half got really brutal. Saracens shaded it on penalties and went 23-18 ahead. I was composing one of those “valiant defeat” tweets in my mind, the sort the some say are not the mentality of a winning team – and crowd. But then Saracens finally got just reward for their cynical tactics. These are most obvious in the front five, where the spirit of South African rugby lives on (you can’t level that at their backs these days). Huge physicality, and never far from illegality. Quins centre, George Lowe, was spear-tackled, which means picked up and thrown to the floor head first. Very dangerous. Worst offences now punished by a red card. In the first half, Quins’ full back, Mike Brown, got the treatment, but because he landed on his back, the offender got away with it. You can imagine the reaction of the Quins crowd! It added to the edge of the occasion for sure. This time Saracens’ forward Rhys Gill was red-carded after an initial yellow.
Of course this helped Quins. They went on the offensive and got a couple of penalties, which replacement fly half, Ben Botica, put over, in a tricky wind, with the rain lashing down. 24-23! But just one penalty or drop goal could still win it for Sarries. They moved forward, and it looked like they were teeing it up for a drop goal attempt by Owen Farrell or Charlie Hodgson, who’d come on in the centre. (Why he didn’t come on earlier is a mystery – Saracens needed his guile). The atmosphere was electric. But in a breakdown, the heroic Chris Robshaw, who had a marauding game, won possession. Suddenly Jack Clifford had the ball and burst through the Saracens defence. He went about 60 metres at unbelievable pace, given the time of the game. Winger Ross Chisholm went with him, but Jack never quite managed to offload to him. No matter, Quins created a position to finish off the game, with James Horwill going over. A nice symmetry: binned in the first two minutes, which nearly lost us the game. Try at the end.
Ben had the chance to convert, which would have denied Sarries the losing bonus point. He scuffed it. But no-one really minded: it was an amazing win, rather against the odds. The whole team was magnificent, but the forwards have to take the most credit. After a pummelling early on when Horwill was off, they rallied and gave the backs the possession to do their thing. A true team performance.
So many good things today. Jack Clifford was outstanding, as was Luke Wallace and Chris Robshaw – an awesome back row. First team Nick Easter dropped to the bench for this game, which must be a first; but so good to have four great players vying for three places. Both props – Adam Jones and Joe Marler – stayed on all match, which is unusual. They were everywhere. Horwill and Matthews were powerful and excellent at the lineout. Young Charlie must be learning so much from his seasoned Aussie counterpart.
But one of the most encouraging things was the return to top form of Mike Brown. Post World Cup he seemed to have lost a bit of confidence – fewer surging runs. Yesterday they were back with a vengeance. And his catching, in difficult circumstances, was impeccable (or as a TV commentator once said about another full back, “imperial”!). Ready for the Six Nations.
Ah the Six Nations. When we forget about the superiority of Southern Hemisphere rugby and just enjoy the European winter tussle. This could be an interesting one for Quins. If new coach Eddie Jones brings in a new broom, we could end up with most of our squad still available for Quins rather than playing for England. On the other hand, such is the form of the team, we could lose even more players. Maybe Jack Clifford, although it might be a bit early. Maybe Luke Wallace? Tough competition for open side flanker, but I think he’s good enough. Marlon Yarde? A real possibility. Mike Brown probably. Danny Care also – poorly treated by the management at the World Cup, but really firing at the moment. Chris Robshaw? It might be Eddie Jones wants a new captain and will prefer to say thanks and goodbye to Chris. But his form is good enough for a place. Joe Marler presumably a cert at prop.
Most likely then, February and March will be a challenge, as it is for most of the top teams, when many of their best players depart for two months. But Quins are now well ensconced in a top four that is pulling away from the rest. So the play-offs are a real possibility. Long way to go though.
But after last season, it’s good to be writing in this way again.
Come on you Quins!