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Harlequins Sail Out of Doldrums

Quins hit six as wind lost from Sale's Sail

by AJQuin

BecalmedIs this our year?  A question I ask myself every year.  For all the negatives I can always find some positives to help me think it just might be.  I have been mulling this over all summer and am still no further forward in my answer.  I can see us finishing anything from 4th all the way down to 11th.  I have waited long enough for this day and soon I hope to have the start to my answer on how Quins will fair this year.

To be honest with all you fellow Quins supporters I was a big JK supporter and backed him right up to the home loss to Wasps last season when I could finally see something had to give.  So with JK gone the board tempted Paul Gustard away from the England squad with just a year to go until the World Cup in Japan.  I hoped this was a sign of the club’s intentions. 

The new combo of Gustard as Head of Rugby and Millard as General Manger (of Rugby) have even managed to make some intriguing signings with American centre Paul Lasike and Fiji Sevens star Semi Kunatani joining the squad. 

Having played myself for a number of decades at various levels I have never weighted pre-season results or for that matter performances.  These games rarely have teams full play book on offer and the amount of changes, or should that be game changers, during a game can really disrupt the flow.  I therefore was not concerned by any of the results or the performances against Jersey, Glasgow or Ealing.  I was a little concerned at the thought of facing a Sale team that could have the back line threat of Faf de Klerk at 9, James O’Connor at 10 and a back three of Solomona, McGuigan and Ashton.  Thankfully Rassie Erasmus decided that Faf should stay with the Springboks on the down week in the Rugby Championship, O’Connor is still trying to get fit and Chris Ashton went and tip tackled Rory Krocket in preseason earning him a 7 week ban.

Christ Ashton’s ban also meant that we would get to see old Quin Marland Yarde start on his return to club, following his mid-season move to Sale last year.  More on this later!

As usual I arrived at The Stoop 2 hours before kick-off to soak up the atmosphere, this was a treat as the atmosphere was buzzing with excitement helped by playing our first game at home at the Stoop with that silly Double Header game not on.  Watching the team warm up I could tell this was not the same team as last year.  There was focus on their drills and a real energy amongst the team that I did not see last year.  With the sun beaming down we took our seats in the West Stand and prepared for the season ahead.

The game started and Sale took early possession of the ball and started to use their big runners to attack our defensive line.  Quin’s line held strong and repelled these early advances with some good hits coming in, some from expected sources like Renaldo ‘Smash’ Bothma and some from unlikely sources such as Dino Lamb.  Could I believe my eyes that the Quins defensive line was holding strong and actually driving the opposition back?  Gustard must have a magic wand!  Quins had little ball in the opening sequence but we managed to get a penalty in range for a shot at goal.  Again being very honest I have been of the thought that perhaps Marcus Smith should not be our first choice 10 as we need to let him grow and part of that is not getting smashed every week (I assume a full argument sorry I mean debate will follow in the comments section).  Smith has natural talent and is exciting to watch and could be great for us and possibly England but there are areas he needs to improve on and goal kicking is one of those areas.  For me if I am to be convinced Smith should be our regular start he needs to consistently be slotting his kicks.  Smith slots the kick Quins lead 3-0 after 3 minutes. 

Almost straight after the kick off Sale pump the ball down field and give chase.  Aaron Morris, who started at full back, with Brownie on the left wing, soared into the air to take the ball only to be taken out in the air by young Tom Curry.  Both fell to the ground and didn’t get up straight away.  Players waved on the medical teams immediately and it became very clear that Tom Curry had hurt himself badly.  The players went off to run light drills to keep warm as medical crew worked on Tom Curry who after about five minutes was stretched off the field giving the crowd a thumbs up.  From what I can gather since the game finished is that Tom was knocked out and so he will now be in the concussion protocol.  I am sure everyone at Quins wishes Tom a speedy recovery and we hope to see him back out playing again soon.  Sale brought on Strauss to replace Tom in the back row.

The game restarted and Sale continued to dominate possession and gradually territory as well.  However compared to last season when Quins would have started to crumble and allow Sale to build up points Quins stood strong and the defensive line was well organise, even when Sale did break the line players got back into position quickly meaning there was little advantage for Sale to use.

Dino Lamb put in another big hit and as the ball moved away referee Craig Maxwell-Keys stop the play as Lamb had not moved since hitting the ground.  Another break in play as Lamb was checked over and although he had to leave the field, presumably for concussion, he was able to walk off under his on steam.  Ben Glynn replaced Lamb in the second row.

A few minutes later and one of Quins bad habits reared its ugly head and ill-discipline led to another penalty for Sale this time in range for AJ MacGinty to slot the 3 points to tie the game up after 16 minutes at 3-3.

The game then started to really come alive a bit and Quins started to get their hands on the ball and the forwards drove over the gain line time and again. The Sale defence was starting to looked stretched inside their own 22 and just when it looked on to spread the ball wide Ben Tapuai took a short line and muscled through two defenders and scoot over the line and touchdown.  It really was a great line and Tapuai attacked the defenders arms which for a small man he broke through easily.  Smith continued his assault on my worry over his goal kicking and added the extras to put Quins 10-3 up after 22 minutes. 

First try

Tapuai Crashes Through

The most pleasing part of this score for me was that Sale had absolutely dominated possession for the first 20 minutes and last year we would have folded at this point but not now.  Quins held strong and then like all good teams when chances came their way they took it and deservedly led at that point.

My new found optimism was to take a hit just a few short minutes later though.  Sale came out the blocks and found themselves camped deep inside the Quins 22.  They stretched the play well going right, then left and then back to the left.  Danny Care saw an opportunity to shoot out the line to stop Sale’s momentum but arrived a fraction late and missed the ball and the tackle on AJ MacGinty who had an easy 10 metre run in for a try.  AJ added the extras to his own score and levelled the game at 10-10.

Sale continued to have possession helped by Quins giving away penalties like it was last season!  Following on from Sale possession in their own half they kicked down field where Morris easily collected the ball and returned in back down towards Sale’s 22.  Sale looked to go right but MacGinty quickly saw the mismatch between their backs and our forwards down the short left side.  After a nice inter-passage of play between the Sale backs, Marland Yard, who had been running hard all game, was put clean through.  Despite DC trying to chase him down and Robshaw asking the Ref to look at a potential forward pass, Yarde scored a well-deserved try under the sticks.  I should mention here that Yarde was booed almost every time he touched the ball, which in my opinion is not called for and quite disrespectful.  Yarde left last year under a bit of a cloud but he did not harm Quins or even say anything bad about the club, players or coaches and so I feel he was shown some lack of respect.  I know it was probably more pantomime villain booing than malicious but still his try deserved to be applauded which I did, almost as loudly as if he had been in the quarters.  MacGinty converted from in front of the posts to make the score 10-17 to Sale after half an hour.

Marland Yarde Scores

Yarde Scores!

Mrs AJQuin then started to feel the game and possibly the season was headed the same as last year.  I tried to remain positive and knew if Quins could just get any type of score before the half we would be ok.  Sure enough Quins worked the ball just inside the Sale half where Sale were penalised at the breakdown and Robshaw called for the kick at goal.  Smith had to make the kick from 45 plus metres out, but alas his kick sailed just right of the posts although it was long enough.

Following the 22 drop out Quins kick long back to Sale who then cleared the ball down field making touch.  Brown who had caught the ball in touch and around his own 10 metre line took a quick throw in to Smith who shipped the ball along to Morris who made good ground and after a neat interchange of passes Nathan Earle sprinted down the touch line to dive high into the corner to send the crowd wild.  It showed that despite the hardnosed dogged defence Gustard had the team playing they were also not only capable of playing the Quins way but willing to play it too.  The conversion was from the side-line; well remember my concern about Smith’s goal kicking? Yeah, forget it, he nailed it. Score 17-17 after 36 minutes.

Earle scores

Earle Scores

I sat back down in my seat thinking level at half time is a result given how little of the ball Quins had seen and I could let my heart rate lower to a more normal level during half time with the knowledge that our bench was slightly stronger than Sale’s and could push us over the line to win the game in the second half. As I was just thinking this I must have drifted off as Sale were awarded a penalty which I did not see and AJ MacGinty stepped up to put Sale 17-20 ahead with 2 minutes left of the half.

Thankfully the players were still playing and had not drifted off in their own thoughts like I had as straight form the kick off they worked the ball down field and after some more forward runs the ball was passed out and Ben Tapuai again muscled over the line for his second try by the posts.  At the breakdown just before the ball was passed out Bothma got into a heated debate with Denny Solomona and another Sale player on the side line.  Again unfortunately I missed what caused this but it was enough of an issue to make Marcus Smith take a quick drop kick conversion which he nailed but the ref called him back stating that the TMO was checking the incident but not checking the try.  It didn’t seem like there was any angle on the issue so no action taken other than talking to which Bothma could been seen smiling at.  Smith took the conversion to give Quins a 24-20 lead at the break.

Tapuai scores again

Tapuai scores again!

At half time we were introduced to Emily the new mascot.  She is Harley and Charley’s little sister and will be at ladies games and some of the men’s games.  She is named after Emily Valentine an Irish lady who is recorded as the first ever female rugby player.

The second half kicked off and Quins looked refreshed.  Within 2 minutes they had earned a penalty which Marcus, yes you guessed it, nailed to increase the lead to 27-20. A few minutes later Quins made their first tactical change by bringing on Max Crumpton at hooker for Elia Elia who had gone about his game in a very business-like manner, he did not standout but he did not do anything wrong and the line out and scrums were good.

Sale fought hard to get back into the game and had numerous penalties to keep the pressure on Quins.  The defence again stood strong and after Quins taking the ball down field themselves and threatening the line Sale infringed.  Quins did the right thing and took the 3 points; yes Marcus kicked them again, to increase the lead to two scores at 30-20 after 49 minutes.

Quins then took off Bothma who got a standing ovation from the supporters in the West Stand around me for his smash mouth rugby and leading form the front both in attack and defence.  James Chisholm replaced Bothma having been cleared to play the week before.

Sale refused to lie down and within 2 minutes had their shot at goal following yet another Quins infringement and AJ slot the points to bring Sale back to within one score at 30-23 with half an hour still to play.

Sale then started to ring the changes with Webber, Luke James and Brynn Evans coming off for Cameron Neild, Mark Jennings and Josh Beaumont.  These changes did little to help Sale as within a minute Quins were attacking inside the 22 with ref playing advantage Quins kept attacking before the ball was shipped out to the left were Joe Marchant half broke the tackle and stretched out to score Quins fourth try for the bonus point.  I probably don’t have to tell you by now but Smith added the kick to make it 37-23 on the 56th minute mark.

Marchant scores

Marchant Unstoppable

There was then some back and forth between the two teams for a period of about 6 or 7 minutes with nothing much to note other than Marchant had seemed to pick up a knock and eventually he made way for Paul Lasike.  Now as a former loose head prop turned inside centre myself, I have a very similar game type to Lasike so I was very keen to see what he could do. The first thing of note he did that I saw was lose an arm tackle as the Sale runner ran past him, this is very much like me.  What followed was a string of penalties against Quins as Sale kept kicking into the corner with the last penalty resulting in a warning to Quins that the next one goes to the bin.  Quins successfully defend the lineout, as they had done all day, so Sale went along the line where Lasike anticipated the ball and intercepted under his own posts and set off into the open field ahead.  There was no Sale defender to beat just 95 yards of open grass.  Lasike did well covering about 60 yards with his handbrake fully on before being caught from behind.  Quins recycled the ball and kept the attack going and earnt a penalty.  This time they kicked for the corner and although the lineout was stopped the attack continued and a few more attacking phases brought a darting run from Care and with the Sale defence all dog legged a short flip pass through the defence to Smith who went under the posts untouched.  Like the consistent kicker I have always known him to be Smith added the extras and Quins led 44-23 with ten minutes left.

Smith breaks through

Smith breaks through

At some point between Lasike coming own and Smith scoring Sale brought on Joe Jones for WillGriff John and Quins took off Marler for Mark Lambert, Marler again getting a good round of applause as he came off.

After the Smith try and with the game looking like it was won Quins took Care off bring on Charlie Mulchrone.  Sale replaced Harrison and Cliff with Tarus and Warr.

Sale continued to fight but Quins were buoyant and looking to really kill the game off and following further penalties which Smith kicked to the corner Quins started to roll in the maul albeit just falling short of the line.  The forwards rumbled on and Max Crumpton, who looks very promising at hooker, was driven over the line for Quin’s sixth try of the afternoon.  By this time I think Maxwell-Keys just gave us the conversion as Smith is automatic at kicking there’s no point wasting anyone’s time.

Crumpton after scoring

Crumpton after scoring

There was only half a minute left at this point but Quins empty the bench and brought Lang on for Mr ‘Automatic’ Smith and Phil Swainston on for Will Collier.  Seconds later the ball was kicked into touch to huge cheers from the stands as Quins ran out 51-23 winners on opening day of the new season.

I would encourage everyone to watch the highlights of this game if they are still doing to watch the entire game on the Premiership Rugby website as it was one to watch, particularly the defence as well as the 6 tries.

The defence was a huge positive for me, for Sale to dominate possession and territory early on and to not get anything and then Quins taking their chances when they presented themselves reminds me of all the best teams over the last decade.

Aaron Morris had an excellent game at fullback and ran some hard lines beating defenders and led the team in metres made.

The set piece was so much better than last year I am confident we can get some real attacking opportunities off forward ball.

Bothma is a beast. (I still think we should nickname him "Hellboy" - Ed)

With players like Horwill, Visser, Walker, Kunatani, Sink and others all still to come back we could have quite a team this year.

All the above being said I am still trying to not let myself run away with one performance.  We need to do this consistently and be looking to win all our home games with anything we can get on the road as a bonus.

The penalty count was a little worrisome with Quins giving up 11 to Sale’s 8.  We need to keep this figure in single figures if we are to beat any of the top teams.  New boy Symons was the worst offender giving away 3 penalties.

All in all a great result and more importantly a better all-round performance than any game I saw last year including the wins against Wasps and Sarries and Big Game 10. Here’s to the team performing like this week in week out!

I asked at the beginning is this our year? Well after this performance I am not ready to declare our march on the championship is on but equally I am writing us off either.  If we can perform like that even 80% of the time we have a great chance of finishing in the top 4.  I guess the reason I keep coming back is because you never know.  I also feel we have a chance in Europe this year and cant wait to visit Treviso to cheer the lads on in December.

I, for one, am looking forward to the Bath game and will see if I can head up to Northampton on Friday evening to cheer the lads on.

#COYQ

Final Score

For more pictures click here

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