Quins' horror show provides more of a trick than a treat
Harlequins 6 Bath 6
According to their travel schedule, the All Blacks touched down at Heathrow Airport in good time to catch the live broadcast of this sell-out match between two of the Aviva Premiership's more ambitious attacking teams. If they tuned in, they are probably wishing they hadn't bothered: indeed, they would have had more fun standing in passport control, or subjecting themselves to an all-over body search by a hatchet-faced immigration officer in epaulettes and heavy boots, armed with a long stick and a magnifying glass.
There again, the more generous spirits among them might have appreciated the comic element in yesterday's proceedings at the Stoop, where more than 14,000 spectators paid good money for a Sunday roast-sized helping of honest endeavour and a lavish side-order of cack-handed buffoonery.
If the New Zealanders made an unusual number of mistakes in losing to the Wallabies in windy Hong Kong on Saturday, their error-count was as nothing compared to that registered in leafy south-west London, where players as good as Nick Evans and Olly Barkley committed sins that would have caused grave offence on a Saturday, let alone on the Sabbath.
The amusement, if you can call it that, started in the sixth minute, when Lewis Moody, the England captain, headed for the dressing room with a cut on his head, much to the consternation of Martin Johnson and Brian Smith, the two England coaches in the crowd. When he returned, his blond hair had turned ginger – so ginger, in fact, that Harriet Harman herself might have felt driven to comment. "I can't say I've ever wanted to be ginger," Moody remarked afterwards. Nobody asked him if he had ever wanted to be called a rodent.
Much to the relief of Johnson and Smith, he made it through to the end of the game, thereby confirming his fitness for the challenge awaiting the national team at Twickenham. It was the Bath flanker's first taste of competitive rugby since last month, when he suffered a damaged retina while playing against Gloucester, and while his vision was still blurred, there were no obvious signs of lasting damage to his rugby. If there were a couple of missed tackles in open field – uncharacteristic, but hardly career-threatening – he emerged with virtually all the components of his high-energy, gung-ho approach to the back-rower's game intact.
"What pleased me most was that I didn't hold back when there was a chance of a charge-down," he said. "I'd injured myself trying to charge down a kick, and I didn't know if my subconscious would prevent me attempting it again. I was a bit nervous about it before kick-off, but it turned out fine. Yes, my vision was a little blurred, but even in the dwindling light I could see well enough to do what I needed to do. I'm just pleased to get 75 minutes of rugby behind me. It's never ideal, having to take three or four weeks out."
For those who expected tries galore from a contest involving a side as quick as Quins and a team as accomplished in the art of the off-load as Bath, the game was disappearing down the toilet just as Moody was disappearing down the tunnel. Their moaning and groaning grew louder with every spilled pass, every collapsed scrum, every aimless hoof downfield.
And to be sure, there was precious little for the rugby fly-by-night to enjoy. For much of the afternoon, Newcastle United were scoring goals more freely than either of these combatants were scoring points. But amid the murk and the gloaming, there were bright shafts of light. Tom Guest, granted one of his occasional starts in the Quins back row as a result of Nick Easter's international commitments, demonstrated why he should be given more of a run even when Easter is available for club duty.
Never less than dynamic with ball in hand – his surge into the Bath 22 at the start of the final quarter sparked his team's one serious assault on the visitors' line – he also handled himself well in the rough and tumble, driving hard off the base of the scrum and tackling his weight in areas of the field his elder and better rarely visits.
There were also things to admire from Nathan Catt, the young Bath prop, who would have relished the chance to set out his stall against Joe Marler, the eye-catching shampoo-and-set merchant who tends to dominate any headlines dedicated to the subject of England's future front-rowers.
Unfortunately, Marler returned from red-rose training duty complaining of a tooth abscess, the bursting of which landed him in hospital, where he spent several hours on a drip. "He will be fine for next week," Conor O'Shea, the Harlequins director of rugby, offered reassuringly.
O'Shea felt there had been far more to the game than many of the audience appeared to think. He was probably right. But when a sport produces the kind of spectacle witnessed in Hong Kong, it is difficult to make much of a case for a match that delivered nothing but penalty goals, two for each side.
Certainly, there was precious little to be said for the skill-set of either team, and when John Andress, the home side's tight-head prop, butchered a try-scoring opportunity by attempting to slide a grubber kick into the Bath 22 – the ball ended somewhere in the vicinity of Richmond High Street, such was the elephantine nature of his touch – there was the faint sound of laughter from the general direction of Kensington. Which happens to be where the All Blacks are staying.
Scorers: Harlequins: Penalties Evans 2. Bath: Penalties Barkley 2.
Harlequins: M Brown; T Williams, G Lowe, J Turner-Hall, G Camacho; N Evans, K Dickson; C Jones, J Gray (C Brooker, 61), J Andress (M Lambert, 53), T Vallejos, G Robson, C Robshaw (capt), W Skinner, T Guest.
Bath: N Abendanon; M Carraro, M Banahan, O Barkley, T Biggs; S Vesty, M Claassens; N Catt (D Flatman, 63), P Dixon, D Bell, S Hooper, D Grewcock (I Fernandez Lobbe 64), S Taylor, L Moody (B Skirving, 5), L Watson (capt, Moody, 14).
Referee: S Davey (London).
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