By Bedfordshire Boy
January 28 2017
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us
I am sure Charles Dickens must have been a rugby supporter and had Harlequins in mind when he wrote these words.
So now we knew, despite the heartache of last Saturday we still had two chances to qualify for the knockout stages of The Challenge Cup: beat Stade and we will be away to Gloucester, draw with Stade and we will be away to the best performing team in the competition, Ospreys. But it was not be with Stade comfortably outscoring Quins by twenty seven points to seventeen following yet another abject display from the visitors.
It was bright and sunny but very cold and as the kick off time approached and it was pretty clear that something was amiss as the only activity on the pitch was a forklift truck busy moving equipment up and down the touchline. Eventually somebody had the bright idea of letting the paying public know what was going on and we were informed that the area of the pitch in the shade of the south stand had been deemed unplayable due to frost. This was all a bit ironic following the unsavoury outcome of the Stade fixture in Romania the previous weekend so we spent the next ninety minutes watching hot air being blown under white plastic sheets in an attempt to thaw the frosted grass. Wouldn`t it have been nice if somebody had looked at the weather forecast and covered the pitch the night before or at the very least started the defrosting process in the morning.
When the game eventually got under way the sides appeared fairly well matched with Charlie Matthews making a good break but after 15 minutes Stade cut through the Quins defence from a line out for centre Vuldarvuwalu to score under the posts. With the try converted by fly half Plisson the score moved on to 7 – 0 in favour of the home side. This spurred on Stade who looked dangerous every time they had the ball compared to a Quins side unable to make any real headway against the Stade defence. Five minutes later Stade mounted another attack, and not for the first time this season, the Quins backline was drawn in field leaving Mike Brown facing an overlap allowing wing Arias to run in for the second try of the match. With Plisson adding the two extra points things were not looking good for Quins who were now 14 points behind after 24 minutes. Possession was fairly even for the rest of the half, the difference being that Stade looked dangerous and likely to score while Quins still looked laboured and resorting to aimlessly kicking the ball away. Stade added three more points to the scoreboard on 39 minutes with a penalty from Plisson but there was still time for the game to restart before the half time whistle. Stade were penalised from the restart and Danny Care took a quick penalty eventually slipping the ball to Mat Luamanu outside of the 22 who shrugged off multiple tackling attempts to barge over the line for a try. Swiel failed with the conversion attempt so the score at half time was Stade 17, Quins 5.
Five minutes into the second half and Stade add three more points to their total following a second penalty conversion by Plisson which at long last generates some sort of response from Quins. A couple of attacks down the left side involving Mike Brown and Tim Visser come to nought but in general Quins are forced to play the kicking game again due to the strength of the Stade defence. The frailty of the Quins defence is exposed once again on 53 minute when Navacalevu breaks the line to pass to Burden to score and with Plisson yet again adding the extra points Stade are now 22 points ahead. Quins now start to ring the changes with the introduction of Chisholm, Dickson and Ward followed a few minutes later by Alofa Alofa. Following more good runs from Brown and Visser suddenly the Stade defence opens up for Marland Yarde to score under the posts. Tim Swiel adds the two extra points and the score sits at 27 – 12 in favour of the home side after 58 minutes. Over the next ten minutes Gray, Evans, Jackson and Jones are brought on as Quins replacements but it is not until the seventy eighth minute of the game that Quins manage to score their third try. After being awarded a penalty inside the Stade 22, Brown taps and goes before passing to James Chisholm to manages to force the ball over the line, the conversion is missed which takes the final score to Stade Francais 27, Harlequins 17.
Yet another disappointing performance from Quins leading to another lost game on the road. Once again it was a case of too little too late with the game being lost before the late rally. Still difficult to pinpoint the problem, there is certainly a lack of penetration in attack and a defence that opposition teams seem to be able to break through almost at will. The set piece scrums are steady enough but we cannot seem to defend the maul or to create effective mauling. Injuries are still a factor with the loss of James Horwill being a major factor although I thought that Charlie Matthews had a particularly good game this week. Quins cannot seem to be able to use Jamie Roberts effectively and Danny Care now seems to be playing a very conservative game rather than his more natural probing and darting style. More aimless kicking out of defence although this improved in the second half with the kicks being shorter and with Visser in particular making a chase. Quite a number of breaks by Quins, especially by Jack Clifford while he was on the pitch, but very rarely was there any meaningful support, almost as if nobody is expecting the oppositions defence to be breached. The other factor at the top of the supporters list of questions is the effectiveness of the coaching set up, is it seriously lacking or are the players not following the script? Good performances on the day from Clifford, Brown, Visser and Matthews and my highlight of the game was the individualistic try from Mat Luamanu. The pace of the game certainly perked up somewhat with the introduction of the Quins bench and Karl Dickson was able to get the back line moving more effectively.
Nearly eight thousand people braved the elements for this match and I think the 300 or so who crossed La Manche are entitled to expect a lot more for our support.
So what do we have left to salvage this our 150th season?
Theoretically every chance of making the top four as we have to play all of the teams above us in the league. Practically no chance whatsoever.
Outside chance of a top six finish but would need a complete turnaround in current form. Luckily, neither Bristol nor Worcester are likely to win enough games to overhaul Quins in the table.
That leaves the Anglo Welsh Cup. I have to be honest and admit that I see us slipping up in that competition as well, a gloomy prediction from a normally very optimistic supporter.