Sunday, November 10, 2013

A tense 80 minutes

After a long dreary winter of banking crises, midnight Dail decisions and emergency budgets, an early spring weekend in South West London and a chance to have a crack at Harlequins RFC appealed on a grand scale. We had come out of the gloom and relentless negativity, and had shivered our way through the games in Edinburgh, London & France to qualify as #6 seed from Pool 2.

Harlequins seemed like a tasty enough prospect. London was easy to get to, and most of us knew our way around the Heathrow to Richmond circus well enough from previous visits to Twickenham. The mood was a little less buoyant than in recent years. We’d been chastened by Black Sunday in 2006 and then a dismal exit in High Wycombe in 07. Still the nearest hotel had rooms and was within walking distance of The Stoop if the black cabs didn’t like the look of us.  It was the perfect spot to crash after a few beers the night before the game and have the door hangers permanently set to "Do Not Disturb" the following morning!

We headed off on that Friday, having indulged in a long weekend given that our game had been allocated the graveyard slot of 3pm on Sunday. The last game of the weekend. You kind of got the feeling that it was shaping up to be THE game of the weekend, or it was going to be the last hurrah for us for a season.

Sunday lunchtime in the ground gave us our first inkling of the numbers who had travelled to The Stoop wearing the colours. The one negative about a London game is that there is no nucleus or focal point to that great sprawling metropolis. When we reached The Stoop and entered what the members proudly call the Longest Bar in Rugby, we began to realise the enormity of the day itself. The huge crowds of families, the boys on stag parties, the older couples who’d come to London to “do a show and take in the match”, the younger ones who were London-based but kept their colours on display and kept up with the news from the RDS. Each and every one of all of us seemed to have that stubborn, bolshy hardened attitude we’d noticed from our team and their management in recent weeks. By the time we’d all found ourselves jammed into the North Stand and focused with our flags and our chants for the 3pm kick-off, the tension was crackling over our heads.

For such a low scoring game, anyone who witnessed what happened that day struggles to explain how it felt like each and every minute stretched the nerves and the vocal chords beyond imagination. Every single belting break made by a fine hardy ‘Quins side seemed to almost, but not quite, get away. The wings for Leinster were magnificent that afternoon. More than one Lions 2009 place was bolted on that mild Spring Sunday. Strettle and Ugo Monye, at their peak, thundered at Fitzgerald and Nacewa like they were wild boar on the rampage. It was a like a game of British Bulldog, only nobody had told our boys that they were supposed to dodge and let the home team seal the deal. Felipe, our wonderful charismatic flaky talisman, seemed to feed off our nerves and our gripped knuckles. Only they made him as sick as we were. BOD, with all that sublime effortless skill turned a sweet ball into a donkey-hoofed howler. Even Isa, whose kicking game made Rob Kearney’s look average, wobbled in that first half. Danny Care launched a punt towards the posts and it seemed to wobble for minutes before lamely falling wide. Oh Thanks be to God – sorry was that your arm I was gripping. Sorry.

We went in 6-0 at the break, but with a dry-mouthed fear as to what was to come.

Kearney had a try disallowed after the break. Fair enough we murmured with wry grins, as they reply showed the forward pass.

Felipe was yellow-carded for a bit of Argentine side stepping in front of Mr All England, Chris Robshaw. Howls and catcalls from the North stand greeted Nigel’s arm on that decision. We didn’t like people picking on Dr Phil. There followed an uncomfortably tense but brilliant passage of play which saw Fitzgerald save the day all by himself after a seemingly perfect effort to change the direction by Danny Care. The North Stand erupted.

We couldn’t hold that level of sustained force for ever. ‘Quins barrelled through a committed and increasingly wild-eyed Leinster defence to score in the corner. The outhalf Malone whom many of us recognised from Bath, missed the conversion and we all sank back into our seats to retrieve our flags and our sanity.

And then began a chicanery of pantomime proportions. Looking back now, it appeared that a clatter of Opposition were doing a kind of colourful shimmy between pitch and bench. By now of course, most of us were gibbering about the need for a flash of BOD brilliance or a Felipe drop goal. With a point in it and an unconverted opposition try we weren’t getting involved in the substitutions that Deano was making. A game of musical chairs began on the pitch, and we howled about time wasting.

The first inkling most of us got that something was badly, weirdly wrong, was the sight of a normally composed Leinster bench up on their feet and screaming like premiership footballers towards the touch judge. Somebody beside me with better eyesight and a clearer head managed to get the message around us that “yerman was on already. They took him off and now he’s back on!” We could make out an apoplectic Ronan O’Donnell screaming and an icy contemptuous Dean Richards in a stare-down of most uncomfortable proportions. Still, there was a match to be played. A few minutes left. The game was nearly beyond us when a penalty conceded in the corner saw a ‘Quins line out, but we just “knew” that this was our day. We watched an Evans drop goal sail away from the posts and blow us head first into a semi final, and fell on each other like exhausted players ourselves at final whistle.

Harlequins 5 –Leinster 6

It only became clear in the hours and days afterwards that something really odd had played out before us at The Stoop. One player demanded whistle-blower status and a guarantee that his mortgage would be paid off before he testified. We don’t know whether that happened or not. One doctor was suspended by the General Medical Council for deliberately cutting a player to produce the requisite injury. She pleaded intolerable pressure from the brooding menace that was Dean Richards and it was hard not to feel sorry for her. Deano himself disappeared into a 3-year exile, disgraced but you got the feeling completely unrepentant. ‘Quins did their soul searching and washed their dirty linen in public that year. Our own ex – Leinster man Conor O’Shea got the job next.

Quins vs Leinster in April 09 remains to this day, the tensest and most riveting game I’ve ever attended in my life. For many more reasons than I realised. And that year we won the Heineken Cup!
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