On Friday evening just gone, Harlequins played their last home game of the season, against league leaders Wasps. My friend Jon and I duly went along, fully expecting the team to be whupped, particularly after the collapse against Exeter in the previous home match. Of course Quins left until this game for their best performance of the season. After an even first half, with Wasps marginally ahead on the scoreboard, they put on a brilliant display, full of intensity and pace, and beat Wasps 32-13. It showed what they are capable of – but why does it happen over the whole of a game so rarely these days?
So we went away on a high, but not just because of the victory. We also had the privilege of saluting Nick Evans, Quins’ fly half, now 36, in his last ever home game for the team. And Karl Dickson, dependable deputy at scrum half to Danny Care. “Nev” has been the star of the team for all the time Jon and I have had season tickets. He joined the club from the Auckland Blues in New Zealand for the 2008-9 season. I’m pretty sure that was the first time we had season tickets – we started going to a few games the season before. And with perfect symmetry, as Nev retires, we are ditching the season tickets. Too many mediocre games for the last three seasons, and with half the team missing for the long periods when there are internationals. The price of a successful academy, which develops players who go on to represent their country. Quins are hardly unique – it affects all the top sides – but, for a while now, the overall squad hasn’t been good enough to challenge for honours. So we will pick our games next season and hope things get better. But it will take investment by the club.
But back to Nev. What a player! The consummate fly half – probably the best in the Premiership in his time here. Before he came over to England he won 16 caps for the All Blacks. But he had the mighty Dan Carter in his way, and he decided to take the more lucrative route in England. Play here and you don’t get picked for the All Blacks. He had all the skills: vision, game management, a cool head, the eye for a gap, pace off the mark, delicate footwork, a good kicker of penalties and conversions (most of the time), and bravery. He isn’t that big by rugby standards, but you’d never see him shirk a tackle or avoid going into the areas where he’d get hit hard by some flanker or second row.
He has been associated with all of the most memorable moments at the Stoop and Twickenham. The ice cool penalty at the end that gave us a 26-26 draw against Leicester in the first ever Christmas Big match at Twickenham in 2008; the amazing victory in the same year over Stade Francais in the Heineken Cup, when Nev won it with a drop goal after 20-odd phases of play in overtime; victory in Cardiff in the second tier European tournament, the Amlin Cup in 2011 in Cardiff, against Stade Francais again (after the amazing away win at Munster in the semis); winning the Premiership final in 2012, 30-23 against Leicester, Nev scoring 20 points. And so on, although there was a slow decline after the Premiership title peak. The best moment since then was the European Challenge Cup final in Lyon in 2015, which Jon and I went to. Nev went off injured in that, and his – for a while – heir apparent Ben Botica made a complete hash of things at the end against Montpellier, which consigned us to defeat. Ben had shown great promise, but didn’t fulfil it. Unlike Nev, he played with his head down, didn’t read the game like the master. He moved to Montpellier – straight after that defeat!
The recent seasons of mediocrity have been marked by long periods of absence for Nev, through injury. That bravery against the hulks started to take its toll as he advanced into his mid-thirties. So it makes sense for him to retire while he can still put on a display like the one against Wasps on Friday night. Another twenty-two points. The man who made Harlequins tick, along with the inspirational Chris Robshaw in the forwards, in the glory years. Let’s hope there will be more success – there is always hope with so many good youngsters coming through. Joe Marler and Kyle Synckler are both on the plane for New Zealand and the Lions tour. Jack Clifford has broken into the England team, and centre Joe Marchant must do so soon. He’s on the Argentina tour this summer.
So expectations are not that high at the moment, but there are still grounds for optimism that things will improve. Meanwhile, thanks Nev for some of the best rugby we’ll ever see down at the Stoop, and best wishes for whatever you do in the future.
Come on you Quins!