In a bid to get my live rugby fix this weekend I found myself at The Stoop; this time as a neutral yet with a leaning towards Harlequins as the English side in the Heineken Cup. Harlequins went into the game with only 2 wins from 5 in the Premiership; Scarlets with the same record in the RaboDirect. So, 2 teams showing very similar form at the start of the season.
The game started with a show of handbags, as Quins captain Chris Robshaw and Scarlets Hooker Emyr Phillips had a roll around on the floor. Hardly mentioned on the TV coverage but from my seat in the stands Phillips appeared to grab Robshaw by the face and rake his nails across; I wonder if that will see further action?
Both teams made at lively start and for the first 7 minutes there was no real indication of how the half would play out. Scarlets were the first to put points on the board after a high kick from Mike Brown was collected by Liam Wiiliams at fullback. The counter attack seeing Rhys Priestland linking with Kristian Phillips on the wing, and then Rhodri Williams who ran in to score a try. Priestland who was very impressive throughout the game slotted the ball over the posts to give the visitors a 7 point lead.
Some very sloppy play by Quins in the midfield resulted in a penalty being awarded to Scarlets; Priestland again found his accuracy and the home side went down by 10 points. As well as leading on the scoreboard the Welsh most certainly were winning on the singing front! The Welsh vocal skills are amazing to hear at the Millenium but a stand full of the men in red made a very good job of supporting their team at The Stoop too!
The Quins fans around me were clearly perturbed and disappointed to see their team struggling. The one bright spark in the first 15 minutes and probably for the remainder of the game was Mike Brown; he’s a player who is at ease in his natural position of fullback and backed himself time after time on the attack. The biggest problem throughout the game from my viewpoint was, however the lack of involvement by the Quins forwards; they seemed to be largely absent. Time after time players found themselves isolated. A great break out by Brown saw the backs over run by Scarlets players and a penalty was awarded. A shell shocked set of Quins fans saw their side go down by 13 points with 15 minutes on the clock.
Quins won a penalty in their own half and Care ran through as is his way, but for reasons only known to him the referee called him back. When such a tactic is so much a part of a players make up it’s very hard to understand why it’s allowed on some occasions frowned upon at others? Quins won their own lineout but a fumbled ball by Matt Hopper again saw Quins backs competing against Scarlets forwards and the ball was turned over. The role reversal of the forwards lining up rather than fighting for the ball was both odd and a major problem for the home side! Quins were relieved by an unusual error by Priestland who in looking for one of his wingers kicked the ball straight out. The Quins attack saw a penalty awarded as Scarlets played the ball offside, Nick Evans in possession of his kicking boots this week scored to put points on the board for Quins at 20 minutes in. Quins 3 Scarlets 13. The 20 minute mark also saw a forced substitution as Maurie Fa’asavalu limped off to be replaced by the long haired Luke Wallace.
An exciting Scarlets attack was thwarted by a great tackle on Jonathan Davies by Matt Hopper; the ball was moved out to Rhodri Williams who sprinted down the wing, however as the commentators noted a very alert Wallace managed to move his hair out of his eyes and make a very timely tackle to put Rhodri Williams into touch. I do have to say, a girls comment I know, I just don’t understand how a professional sportsman can be bothered with long hair??? Even one such as Wallace who actually is a rare man who suits the look!
After some scrappy midfield play by Quins Care in an attempt to win the ball was penalised for a deliberate knock on, often a harsh decision that one, if he’d caught the ball he’d have had a good chance of setting his team up to attack. Priestland put in an amazing kick to give his team the platform for an attack that saw them held up over the line. The Scarlets didn’t leave the vicinity as the video ref checked and gave his verdict which was the best indication of a no try. After a knock on by Scarlets the ball was cleared by Evans, the ball was returned by way of an attempted drop goal by Priestland; Mike Brown again ran the ball out and Quins started an impressive counter attack. The speed of the Quins back line caused this Saracens fan to jump out of my seat and throw my phone on the floor (and I’m now the owner of a new phone at £120!) as Danny Care, Tom Williams and Sam Smith linked; Jonathan Davies who played a captains role throughout and Jordan Williams prevented the try as the Quins wing duo were bundled into touch. Davies prevented a pass with what could have been interpreted as a deliberate knock on?
Quins next attack did however see them get across the line as a brilliant cross field kick by Nick Evans was gathered by Nick Easter who popped a neat pass to a bloodied Mike Brown who stormed over the line; a deserved try for a player who put his all in and must surely have been Quins man of the match. The try put Quins in touching distance of Scarlets with the score at 10 to 13. However the half finished as it started with a brilliant solo try by man of the match Scott Williams, heart sinking for the home fans, amazing to see for a neutral as Williams threw not 1 but 2 dummies to power in and score. Priestland converted to send the teams in with the score at Quins 10 Scarlets 20
My notes for the second half start with… Will the Quins forwards turn up where the ball is this half? It’s true that they have a lot of injuries but the core of the team is the one that won the premiership not so long ago; from the first half you’d never imagine so! More handbags early in the half involving Emyr Phillips, but with Mike Brown this time.
A pivotal moment in the game happened after 2.5 minutes as Scarlets prop Samson Lee, ‘shoe’d’ Danny Care’s face! Now then from the other side of the pitch it looked as such, it also surely should have been a red card?? Thinking back to the Saracens v Gloucester game where admittedly there was more contact, the ref had no hesitation in reaching for red, reckless use of the boot, to a man’s head? Red for me. This was the time for Quins to put some points on the board with the advantage in numbers and Nick Evans did so with a drop goal. Evans again amazed with a great kick to touch that must have travelled 70 metres. However in the 10 minutes that Quins held the advantage numbers wise the score was improved by 6 points each as both teams were awarded and converted 2 penalties. So with both teams at 15 men the score was Quins 19 Scarlets 26. Not the best return for the home team!
With 20 minutes of the game remaining Quins seemed to understand they needed to put themselves into gear if they were to come away with anything. They had looked like a team with poor fitness, poor decision making and lacking in ideas; for me it was time to switch playmakers and let Ben Bottica loose with the ball, Evans looked tired. But Evans it was who scored next though with a penalty to take Quins into bonus point territory.
Quins hearts were broken again however by a brilliant winger’s try by, yes, you’ve guessed it a Williams, there were 5 on the pitch! This was Jordan, how he had room to run in I still have no idea watching the re run on the TV. Wales know how to produce a winger it has to be said! Quins in a more determined mood carried on attacking with the players who’d been introduced playing their part; Karl Dixon must be one of the best scrum halves in the league to sit on the bench for most games, he added pace and imagination. Quins got close on several occasions, then again Mike Brown backed himself as the ball came out to him and ran round 2 players exploiting the gap to score his second try of the game. So a bonus point margin again with the score at Quins 26 Scarlets 33.
An uncharacteristic error by Josh Turnbull who dropped the ball as he got below a high, long kick from Evans put Quins into good attacking territory, could the home team get across the line to bring the scores level? Scarlets defending skills were needed in the last 8 minutes and they won a penalty as Hopper held on to the ball; up stepped Steven Shingler on for Priestland, on fine form he hadn’t missed a kick this season. Luckily for Quins his 11 from 11 went to 11 from 12 as he pulled the kick.
With 4 minutes remaining Liam Williams, still on the pitch In spite of a dodgy leg, cleared Scarlet’s line with a great kick. Quins got some good distance with a strong rolling maul, pulled down by the men in red and Rob Evans took a yellow for the team. Now at this point, I think an error of judgement was made, rather than for form scrum forcing Scarlets to bring on a prop, putting a slower man on the pitch for the last 3 minutes Quins kicked to touch. I imagine Scarlets would have put a man into the scrum rather than risk being pushed over their line, this would have opened a gap across the field. But, a lineout it was it felt like a miracle was possible! Quins won their lineout and after several moves towards the line the Evans threw a looping pass to Paul Sackey who touched down, he was was brilliantly tackled by Liam Williams though, foot in touch, no try!
A very tense final minute saw the scrum awarded to Quins as Scarlets knocked on, now the change of player to bring a prop on, but with literally seconds on the clock. A final attack by Quins saw the forwards hold up the man in possession of the ball to win a penalty and the game.
Some very happy Welsh men left the Stoop with a win and 4 points. Quins have vast improvements to make if they are to move forward in the Heineken Cup they sot in a very challenging group, home wins are vital. To steal Connor O’Shea’s words Fter the game ‘I’m angry, I thought we were terrible. We made so many basic errors, I’m furious!’ I think the training ground will be a very interesting place to be on Monday!
As far as the Welsh are concerned? Based on seeing just one team this weekend so far, they will be the team to beat in the 6 Nations this season.