Saracens deliver ultimate insult to Quins

Harlequins 0 Saracens 39 – The Stoop – Friday 12th September 2014 by Mike Miles from Scrumdown.org.uk

In their preview of the 2014/15 Premiership season, the magazine “Rugby World” wrote of Harlequins:”Their positive play will never see them truly smashed”. The writer may now be having second thoughts.

But to draw conclusions only two league games into the season might seem preposterous, either to nominate Saracens to run away with the league, or to fear that Quins might struggle to rise above mid-table. But any more games like I witnessed at the Stoop on Friday night and we might have to re-consider those thoughts. It is almost unknown for two serious aspirants to the Premiership title to finish as far apart as did Harlequins and Saracens on Friday.

It was savage. Harlequins were obliterated. Conor O’Shea’s team failed to score a point in an Aviva Premiership match for the first time since 2009.Saracens won by the unbelievable score of 39-0 and were awesome, up front and in defence. Even when the match was still nominally in the balance Sarries held out with ease against six frantic attempts from Quins to drive over from short range. One of the late Saracens tries came about because a sustained Harlequins move died a lingering death under the pressure of their wolf pack defence. Even when Saracens had men yellow-carded on two occasions they still managed to score.

Saracens will be sanguine. If one game does not in the end set the pattern for their season, then it was a heck of a one-off. Harlequins on the other hand will be anxious. Professional teams traditionally use a poor performance as a basis for a bounce-back. But Quins had already given a poor performance in the previous match against London Irish. Friday was presumably meant to be the bounce back.

There were omens. Harlequins’ only victory over Saracens in their last eleven fixtures since 2009 was 24-19 at Wembley back in March 2012. Saracens have won on six of their last seven visits to The Stoop. Now make that seven.

Mike Brown, the Harlequins full back, had stoked the fires before kick-off, describing this as their biggest “grudge match”. Bu the feisty full back was made to eat his words and they will have tasted bitter. Though to be fair to Brown, he was the only Harlequin to deliver a performance that remotely matched the passion and intensity he would have expected of his team mates. Had it not been for his two last-ditch tackles the scoreline would have hit 50.

Scotland the brave

Apparently there were 66,164 at the London Double Header at Twickenham. There were 1,087 souls at the Richmond Athletic Ground to see London Scottish take on Rotherham Titans on the season’s opener of the rather grandly named Greene King IPA Championship. I was one of them (not me, but Mike Miles from Scrumdown.org.uk)

Both these sides are expected to do well this term, with the Titans making the play-offs last time out, and Scottish finishing one place behind them. The Exiles start the season with what pundits consider their strongest squad since their final Premiership season in 1998-99. 17 players have departed and 18 have arrived.

The story of London Scottish in recent years reads as one of the most eye-catching comebacks in any sport. No wonder the club calls it “The Incredible Journey.” Since going into administration in 1998, with the subsequent demotion to League Ten, Scottish have moved up through the leagues, reaching the Championship in 2011. They are now entering their fourth season at this level and last season’s fifth place was the highest league placing in 15 years.

Indeed both today’s clubs share something in common in that they almost disappeared before being resuscitated to fight another day. Rotherham’s brush with disaster came in 2004 when, following a disastrous Premiership campaign in which they lost every match, their main backer pulled out and it looked odds-on the club would go to the wall. The Titans were rescued and rebuilt by their current chairman Nick Cragg, and for them too it has been a hard road back.

Today was the third time in four seasons that Scottish and Rotherham have met on the opening weekend, and the Yorkshire side are currently on a three-game winning run over the Exiles. But on a warm, sunny afternoon in west London Scottish skipper Mark Bright scored a hat-trick as his team put down an early marker in their play-off chase against direct rivals. Helped by a rampaging catch-and-drive the Exiles confirmed they should be in the mix next spring. They scored five tries in total as James Phillips also went over and fellow summer signing, full-back Peter Lydon, ended a fine performance with one try, two conversions and a penalty. His try was easily the pick of the bunch as he picked up a sublime flicked pass from that man Bright in the opening minute of the second half to score in the corner.

Fly-half McKinney kept the Titans in the match with six penalties, but their only try was too late to affect the outcome of a bright, entertaining start to the new season.

Curiously, Mark Bright was not named man-of-the match.

Mike Miles

www.scrumdown.org.uk

Wasps to choose to be sent to Coventry

Wasps have dropped London from their name for the forthcoming season, and are now believed to be drawing up plans to relocate the club away from High Wycombe to the West Midlands, specifically Coventry City’s Ricoh Arena. Wasps are no strangers to the ground, having played a number of Heineken Cup games there in the past.

Land Rover have their headquarters in the area, and the new club sponsors are Land Rover owners Tata Motors, so read into that what you will….

Wasps would not be the only rugby team to have shifted location to find a permanent home in recent years, but there is no denying that those clubs who are leading such a nomadic existence are the ones who find it harder to create the home atmosphere found in the West of England or Leicester.

You can appreciate Wasps’ need to move and find a more suitable home , but surely it should be closer to their traditional home and not further away?”

Mike Miles – Scrumdown.org.uk

Saints finally reach rugby heaven

Saracens 20 Northampton Saints 24 – Premiership Final – Twickenham by Mike Miles
“A bomb under the West car park at Twickenham on an international day would end fascism in England for a generation,” wrote George Orwell before the Second World War.  Whether the politics of those bastions of middle England have developed in the period since is open to question, but certainly the architecture on this site that was once a humble cabbage patch, before the RFU purchased the land for just over £5,500 in 1907, has come a long way. When it hosted its first international in 1910 against Wales “HQ” could accommodate just 20,000 spectators. Today it seats an impressive 82,000, making it the largest dedicated rugby union venue in the world. Legend has it there are 17 lifts, 6,400 steps (easy to believe as I recovered from the climb to my Upper Tier seat) and 160exits,all of which were hit by Sarries supporters with Ashton-esque pace at the end.

northamptonTwickenham crowds can and do complain. Watching England they chunter.  In truth, perhaps fan is the wrong term for the England rugby watcher. Fan implies a degree of loyalty, an almost slavish support for the often useless, but at Twickenham there is often displayed a sense of entitlement that may well be in keeping with rugby’s origins.

When Andy Robinson/Martin Johnson’s England were rumbling through their very average gears the Twickenham experience  used to be a case of drinking Twickenham town centre dry  and then walking up to the game, piling in minutes before kick-off. But at the moment there is real excitement around the England team, something which has been the norm in club finals for years.

There are few certainties in modern-day life, but there used to be one in English rugby: if you wanted to be crowned Premiership champions then you had to beat Leicester Tigers in the final. Then Northampton Saints went and beat the Tigers by the narrowest possible, single-point, margin in their semi-final, and so ensured the first Premiership Rugby Final since 2004 without the Tigers.

It was the last day of the domestic season and one of firsts. Northampton had never won the Premiership before, while the final had not witnessed extra time in the 12 years of the play-offs. In a gruelling contest which was only decided when prop Alex Waller claimed a try from under a pile of bodies after the countdown clock had reached zero, the Saints were first among equals. Was it on the line? Was the pass forward? Is the paint on a rugby post the sort of margin by which a nine-month campaign should be decided? All of these questions and more might have swirled around the head of this neutral during this extraordinary climax to a domestic season. But to hell with neutrality. This was extraordinary drama, and who is to say the Saints do not deserve to be crowned champions for the first time. Back in September I witnessed Northampton begin their Premiership campaign with a 39-11 demolition of Exeter at Franklins Gardens back in September. It therefore seemed fitting, nine months later, to see them win the final in the 100th minute with a ball that may or may not have kissed the white line.

What your Twickenham-goer makes of the game-day experience must be a subjective thing, though a hassle-free journey to and from the  stadium using public transport still seems a far-flung fantasy.

Sarries power into a Twickenham show-down

Saracens 31 Harlequins 17 – Play-off Semi-Final – Allianz Park – Saturday 17th May 2014 by Mike Miles
srfc
Prior to this game, Northampton Saints had played Leicester Tigers at Franklins Gardens on Friday night in the first battle for a place in the Premiership final at Twickenham. I watched it on television, and even allowing for the attempts by commentators to stoke the fires it was easy to place the unmistakeable smell of cordite lingering over Franklin’s Gardens. It was the after-math of a wonderfully explosive, and occasionally brutal, contest between the bitterest of rivals. When hostilities ceased it was Northampton who collected the spoils of war, a place in the final against Saracens.
The two towns are about 30 mile apart. Saracens and Harlequins on the other hand are divided by about 15 miles of congested London roads. Indeed one of Sarries’ proud boasts is that they are the only Premiership club with a London postcode, though situated as they are in the far-off reaches of Barnet it must be a close-run thing. My point is that there just does not seem to be the underlying animosity between the two clubs that would make chess match between Leicester and Northampton break out into a fight. The attendance at Allianz Park was 9, 962, marginally below capacity, and it was pretty easy for a casual fan like me to obtain a ticket.

Therefore a play-off between two sides matched by intent rather than playing strength never seemed likely to replicate the atavistic ferocity of the bout at Northampton on Friday, but the two London rivals had a go in a first half of thrills and spills, the latter taking the form of players being dumped on the ground in tackles. Quins prop Kyle Sinckler even dared take an axe (quite legally)to the home side’s totem pole Jacques Burger.
But for all their strategy and cunning, Quins could not overcome the greater strength of their opponents nor an unfamiliar surface that, on the warmest day of the year, sapped energy when they most needed it, and they conceded 20 unanswered points in the second half after leading 17-11 at the interval.

The referee Wayne Barnes (which the match programme had listed as Wayne Barnew !) was not quite as overworked as his colleague JP Doyle at Northampton , though he did have cause to lecture Danny Care about the virtues of sportsmanship,, and the scrum-half’s colleagues surrounded Chris Ashton ( the Dennis Wise of rugby union with his ability to start an argument in an empty room)at half-time after the wing had attempted to put off Nick Evans as the Harlequin ran up for the conversion of Mike Brown’s try by shouting “miss it”. It showed the game had an edge, maybe not as sharp and pointed as in the first play-off, Mike Brown limped off with a hamstring twinge 12 minutes from time, and with him seemed to depart Quins’ earlier resolve. Saracens also lost a key man to injury. Captain Steve Borthwick was forced off with a shoulder injury, having set a Premiership match record of 264 in this semi-final. Farrell kicked another penalty to confirm that Saracens and Northampton, by some distance the strongest teams in the Premiership will contest the final this season. It promises to be a thunderous affair, and puts Saracens in with a tilt at immortality with the Heineken Cup Final to come next weekend in Cardiff.

Early Bath ends Wasps European dream

London Wasps 18 Bath Rugby 24 – Adams Park – Sunday 27th April 2014 – Amlin Cup Semi-Final by Mike Miles, Scrumdown.org.uk
Weighing priorities can be a tricky business at this stage of the season. Next Friday, Bath face Northampton at The Rec in the penultimate round of Aviva Premiership fixtures, third against second, knowing that a victory would secure a top-four place for the first time in four years. For their part, Wasps knew that a home victory against Newcastle next Saturday would ensure seventh place and a play-off to qualify for the new Rugby Champions Cup next season.

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAIn fairness to Bath they picked their strongest team, no doubt hoping for a place in May’s Cardiff Arms Park Final, and some momentum to take them into the final two weeks of the league season. After all, a trophy could mean much to a young, developing side, and this tournament represented Wasps’ only hope of getting hands on their first silverware since 2007.Today’s game was Wasps’ fifth European semi-final, their only defeat coming in the most recent, against Cardiff Blues in the Challenge Cup in 2010 when the Cardiff coach was Dai Young, the current occupier of the Adam Park hot seat.

The trophy cabinet at Bath has been neglected in recent years, but the club took a big step towards silverware with a powerful victory at Adams Park. Nick Abendanon and Matt Banahan are the only survivors from Bath’s last major final, against Worcester Warriors in the same competition in 2008. Bath drew on every ounce of their experience to secure a tight victory, and a place in the Final against Northampton Saints, who they could meet twice before that Cardiff date on May 23.
Bath had even trailed at the break, but fought back with two second half tries from former Wasps hooker Rob Webber. Despite dominating large parts of the second half, Bath had to withstand a fierce late rally by Wasps to secure their Final place.”We came up a little bit short, but that’s an image of most of our season,” said Dai Young afterwards. “We work our socks off but we give points away cheaply, which you can’t do against a quality team like Bath.”

As for Wasps, to ease the pain of defeat they have the goal of claiming the 20th place in the inaugural European Rugby Champions Cup next season via a play-off against the seventh-placed French Top 14 side.

Irish Eyes aren’t smiling

London Irish…..15 Leicester Tigers….30 – The Madejski Stadium – Sunday 3rd February 2014

Mike Miles of Scrumdown.org.uk  heads West for some Premiership action.

This was only my second ever visit to the Madejski Stadium. My first was precisely a year ago when I saw Irish beat London Wasps. My main memory of that day is how cold it was. I remember nothing of the rugby, but just how desperate I was to seek the warmth of my car.

london_irish_shirt_0809To be fair to London Irish they put in a lot of effort to create an atmosphere on match days, but it is difficult to escape the downside of a game played in a football stadium where the capacity is 24,000 , and the attendance today was 9114 for the visit of Premiership Champions Leicester Tigers. The East and West Stands were reasonably populated but the South Stand was empty and a scattering of fans in the North Stand.

Apparently the Madejski Stadium was named the best stadium to watch rugby in England in a supporter’s survey conducted by Rugby World magazine during 2009/10. The home of London Irish claimed the top accolade in a survey of more than 1,500 rugby supporters, securing nearly a quarter of overall votes regarding which ground offered spectators the most comfortable match day experience. The survey praised the stadium’s shop and transport links, and nearly every fan who cited it as the best ground in terms of facilities mentioned the proximity to the M4 and large on-site parking area.

Today most fans must have elected to drive as despite leaving the M4 fully an hour before kick-off it was a slow crawl to the car park, which was already resembling Sainsburys on a Saturday afternoon. The Stadium itself seems just like another nice, functional ground. But it lacks character and that essential “wow” factor. Coupled with the fact that there a few facilities such as pubs around the stadium (unless Costcos and B & Q are your thing) then it is the stadium or nothing.

The Exiles, though near the bottom of the Premiership table, had come into this match on the back of two wins on the road, at Saracens and Wasps. But here they had to rely on penalties with four successes from James O’Connor and one from Ian Humphreys, after O’Connor had missed with three kicks. The visitors lacked discipline, giving away 11 first-half penalties to Irish’s four. Thomas Waldron came off the bench in the 63rd minute was yellow-carded in the 67th and returned to the pitch just in time to support the Tigers’ late rearguard action. But Leicester were always the likely try scorers , picking up three through Ben Youngs ,Mulipola and Goneva, with Owen Williams , playing instead of the benched Toby Young, adding a penalty and conversion.

There were the usual quota of refereeing debates, with Mulipola’s try awarded on the advice of the television match official, and late on the Exiles crossed the line for what could have been an equalising try only for the TMO to rule it out for an earlier knock-on.

There was some good news for Irish as winger Marland Yarde came off the bench to make his comeback after injury, but this must be a mixed blessing as he is off to Harlequins for next season.

As I drove slowly out of one of the Madejski’s car parks after the game I listened to a discussion of Ireland’s performance in the previous day’s international. Unlike in the past London Irish have contributed nobody to the current Irish team.

London Irish RFC was founded in 1898 for the young Irishmen of London, modelling itself on the already established London Welsh and London Irish teams.

It is a testament to the international state of the Premiership that the Exile’s current 38-man squad numbers only 5 Irishmen. Englishmen make up the biggest contribution with 13, and there are the almost obligatory Tongans and Samoans.

 

 

Keeping up with the times

Harlequins v ASM Clermont Auvergne – The Stoop – Saturday 14th January 2014
Idling through the rugby books section on Amazon recently I noticed the title “Britain’s Rugby Grounds” by Chris Harte. Published in 2003 it calls itself “A guide to 50 rugby union grounds in Britain” (Kendal anyone?). Idiosyncratic the choice may be but among more well known venues covered is The Twickenham Stoop, and so the book offers a unique view on how stadia have changed in the last decade.

20130601-213334.jpgThere is a photo taken from the current East Stand (then recently opened) at The Stoop which shows the small covered West Stand opposite and the uncovered South Stand. Harte refers to this “permanent-temporary” seating behind the posts, where some “5750 spectators can watch in relative comfort, as long as it is not raining”. The old West Stand then had 448 seats. In the past decade this has been transformed into a 4,000-seat structure, and a similar number can crowd into the most recent addition to the stadium, the South Stand.

Total capacity is now officially 14,816, though this afternoon’s attendance was 2,000 below this. There was even an ad in Friday’s Evening Standard asking fans to “keep our European campaign alive and support us tomorrow”. It was not as if nothing was at stake. Quins were bidding to become the first team in Harlequin Cup history to lose their first two games but still qualify for the quarter finals. To do so they would need to beat the physically massive French side Clermont Auvergne. Two years ago I had seen Clermont brush aside Saracens in the quarter finals, but the French side have a tradition of letting campaigns slip away from them, a prime example being last year’s Heineken Cup final loss to Toulon.

In the final analysis Harlequins emptied the tank when it came to commitment, but their bid for a place in the last eight failed because they did not have the moves to knock over the team from France’s volcano country. This Quins outfit was not quite big enough, powerful enough or tactically smart enough. In fact they were still leading after 72 minutes, but their dream was stomped underfoot when Clermont levelled the account at 13-13, and then four minutes later, clinched victory with a Brock James penalty. Quins at least did have the consolation of Danny Care’s touchline ballet and reverse pass of Chris Robshaw’s chip to send Hopper clear for their only try, but it was not inspiration enough.”It gave us a big lift” said Quins coach Conor O’Shea. “He showed magic hands. He was just like Dynamo (the magician) dealing cards.”

The Heineken is a tournament O’Shea fervently wants to continue.” It’s a brilliant competition. We want to be hosting teams like Clermont and Toulouse.”Alas that is not now down to the coaches and the players but the game’s administrators, and they have been arguing for almost two years without coming up with a solution everyone can agree to.

Mike Miles
www.scrumdown.org.uk

 

Tiger Feet

Leicester Tigers 41 Montpellier 32 – Welford Road – 8th December 2013
Mike Miles takes his first trip to Welford Road to see some Heineken Cup action.

I have in front of me the programme for the Heineken Cup semi-final between Leicester and Toulouse on January 4 1997.Apart from the interesting names in the line-up (current Director of Rugby Richard Cockerill was “B” –no such boring things as numbers in those days) there was a fascinating feature on their Welford Road Stadium. No Caterpillar Stand of course, but the Holland & Barrett Stand was there-albeit known as the Crumbie Stand. This was named after Tom Crumbie, secretary of the club for 33 years until his death in 1928. He presided over an ambitious plan to turn the ground into an international stadium, but went to his grave presiding over what was regarded as a white elephant. The popularity of rugby union had waned , crowds dropped, and financial problems meant that the first Tigers Supporters Club was formed in 1934 with the sole purpose of “liquidating the £12,000 debt caused by the building of the Crumbie Stand” It is also interesting to look at the attendances to date in that 1996/97 season. Highest was for the 10,368 who watched the league game against Bath.

Nowadays, Leicester Tigers are often described as the Manchester United of English rugby. Not only do they hold the record number of Premiership titles but their Welford Road stadium, with a capacity of 24,000, is the largest purpose-built club rugby union ground in England.

When grounds were being selected for the 2015 Rugby World Cup Welford Road was considered a shoo-in, but to add insult to injury, the selection verdict went to Leicester City’s King Power Stadium. And it is fair to say, the locals were not best pleased.

Like to team from Old Trafford the Tigers have felt Europe is as much their natural habitat as England. They have won the Heineken Cup twice, but the last time was back in 2002.

Taking the mile or so walk from Leicester Station to the ground, along Tigers Way, the first part of the ground to greet you, on the other side of Nelson Mandela Park, is the magnificent GNC Stand. Opened as the Caterpillar Stand in 2009, it seats 10,000 people, and was Phase 1 of a development of the ground that will hopefully take capacity up to 30,000.

I was seated opposite in that infamous Crumbie, now re-named Holland & Barrett Stand. This still has the wooden benches which presumably hearken back to its construction in the 1920’s.

The chances of a Heineken Cup even taking place next season continue to depend on whom you listen to. According to Leicester’s Chairman Peter Tom the English clubs are looking at inviting the four leading Welsh sides to play in an expanded Premiership. While in his Programme notes, the club’s executive director, Peter Wheeler, confirmed that the Premiership clubs cannot contractually play in a tournament not broadcast by BT Sport. Stick these statements together and there still seems little prospect of the English and Welsh playing in a Sky-screened Heineken Cup. “I don’t know where it’s going to end up”, lamented Leicester’s Richard Cockerill afterwards. He is far from alone.

This splendid match gave a graphic example of what English fans will be missing if their clubs carry out their threat to withdraw from European competition next season. Leicester had victory all but secure inside the first 15 minutes as they roared into a 24-3 lead. But they twice allowed Montpellier a potential escape route and ended up grateful for a last-gasp drop goal from Ryan Lamb that could yet save them from the pool qualification chop. This tournament may be endangered but it is never dull .It all contributed to an enjoyable eight-try thriller, precisely the kind of cultural blur that will be sorely missed if there is no real pan-European competition in 2014/15.

 

All Blacks break the English hearts

On most days of the year I would be taken aback to see a rugby league shirt on the streets of London. Today is different but it takes a while to get used to it. The Rugby League World Cup has been taking place since the end of October. Most games have been played in the game’s northern heartland, with the odd excursion to France and even Munster. But the semi-finals are to be played in London at Wembley in a double-header, with England first up against current world champions New Zealand, followed by favourites Australia playing Fiji.

The problem with the “new” Wembley is the same now as it was when the Empire Stadium opened in 1923; it’s in Wembley. Among London’s least attractive suburbs, Wembley may be close to a whole network of railways and motorways but it can still be a pain to get to. Luckily the revamped Wembley Park tube station copes well delivering the vast majority of the crowd.

Walking down the Olympic way is part of the great Wembley ritual, but the World Cup organisers seemed to have spent considerably less than other match organisers “dressing” the stadium and the visual approach is underwhelming compared to,say,NFL games here. The stewards were friendly and knowledgeable enough, but why does the over-loud PA system insist on reminding us why we are here. I’d have thought most fans already had a pretty good idea.

The organisers must have been worried about the likely attendance as a few months ago I was able to secure a couple of tickets for £20 each. They were for seats at the back of the second tier, and I had lots of legroom. The view from the side of the sticks was clear and our half of the pitch was close enough. But when play went down to the other end most eyes automatically lifted to the big screen as it was difficult to tell who anyone was way down there. It’s an unavoidable problem in any stadium of this size-in some spots the action is too far away for the human eye.

The faces at full-time said it all. England, 20 seconds from the World Cup final, crumbled to the floor. Wembley fell silent. New Zealand danced. This was the cruellest of defeats, snatched from the jaws of victory. Leading 18-14 with the match entering its final minute, England conceded a late penalty. As the black wave neared the England line, Shawn Johnson shimmied and breached the barricades with 20 seconds remaining. He converted his own try to send New Zealand to Manchester’s final and England to ponder what might have been.

Players dropped to their knees; I swear a few in the 67,545 crowd did the same. England have suffered their share of agonies in the 41 years since Great Britain were last crowned world champions, although nothing as cruel as on Saturday.

P.S. On Sunday I watched ( with an incredible sense of déjà vu) on T.V. as rugby union’s All Blacks prevented Ireland inflicting their first defeat in 2013, and what would have been Ireland’s first ever victory over New Zealand, with a try with the last play of the game.

More pictures from the game can be found here.