If Harlequins were still the ultimate establishment team – all Queen, country and bankers’ bonuses – they would have done the proper thing and offered Bath a free pass into the Premiership play-offs, thereby guaranteeing England the services of Mike Brown, Danny Care and Chris Robshaw when they embark on the slightly awkward process of ending New Zealand’s 20-year winning streak in Auckland next month. “Least we could do, old chap,” they would have said. “There are more important things in life than club rugby, and sorting out the colonials is one of them.”
That blue-blooded brand of Harlequinism disappeared long ago: these days, the Londoners have a very clear sense of their own standing at the top end of the domestic game and pack their side with salt-of-the-earth types willing to fight like alley cats in defence of it. They demonstrated this once again by resisting a ferocious West Country challenge in front of a full house at The Stoop, winning 19-16 to book themselves a semi-final trip to Saracens, and while the odds are still just about in favour of Robshaw and company being around for the visit to the great All Black stronghold of Eden Park in a little under a month’s time, the England hierarchy will not be banking on it.
When Stuart Lancaster, the national head coach, picks his side for the opening Test against the world champions, those players involved in the Premiership final on 31 May will not be up for selection: the flight distance will be too great, the preparation time too limited. He knows he will have one of Manu Tuilagi and Luther Burrell in midfield, but not both; that his first-choice threesome in the back row may be down to a onesome by the time he reaches Auckland; that the chances of him having to field an uncapped hooker are growing by the day.
Even had Bath won at the weekend – as they might well have done had Nick Aben-danon or Anthony Watson or Jonathan Joseph shown just a little more composure on the ball after ripping up their opponents in open field – Lancaster would not have rested easy in his bed: the thought of David Wilson, the only tight-head prop of international quality currently available to him, making it through to the Premiership final would have been too grim to contemplate. There again, he now faces the prospect of losing the collective heartbeat of his team (Brown, Care, Robshaw) or, still worse in numerical terms, Alex Goode, Chris Ashton, Brad Barritt, Owen Farrell and the Vunipola brothers.
It is a rare old muddle, to be sure: as Bath still have to play an Amlin Challenge Cup final against Northampton and are certain to throw the kitchen sink at it – “The only way we can make sense of our season now is to win that trophy,” said Mike Ford, their head coach, after watching his side slip out of the top four at the 11th hour – it is far from certain that Wilson and his fellow international contenders, the outside-half George Ford and the lock Dave Attwood, will emerge in one piece. Only after European finals weekend will Lancaster know precisely where he stands vis-à-vis Eden Park.
Had the red rose boss spent Saturday in the south-east of the country rather than the north-east, where he was to be found casting an eye over the Exeter hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie and the Newcastle prop Kieran Brookes, he would have found some reassurance amongst all the angst and uncertainty. Brown was positively bristling with aggressive intent – one of these fine days someone will give him a proper bunch of fives – while between them, Care and Robshaw found a way to push Harlequins over the line. Robshaw, in particular, turned in a mammoth shift: the Bath pack, driven along by Attwood and the ultra-abrasive Carl Fearns, were on a mission, yet they could not subdue the England captain, whose fathomless reserves of energy show no sign of diminishing.
As for Ford, the bookmakers’ favourite to face the gifted Beauden Barrett in Auckland – the All Blacks themselves are down to their third-choice playmaker, thanks to Daniel Carter’s sabbatical and Aaron Cruden’s busted thumb – there were unmistakeable signs of a class act at work. The solo slice-and-scamper try he scored early in the second quarter was startlingly good: every bit as exhilarating as the one he had put past Northampton eight days previously, but from further out. There was also much to admire in the tactical kicking, although he continues to take unnecessary chances.
The question mark, which will always be there unless he exposes himself to large amounts of gamma radiation and turns into the Incredible Hulk, is one of size: at one point during the first half, the Harlequins wing Ugo Monye propelled Ford backwards at such speed, they were both at risk of ending up in Richmond High Street. The Bath man also saw plenty of Jordan Turner-Hall, a substantial citizen who made it his business to seek out the physical mismatch at every opportunity.
Bath deserve credit for creating a defensive structure that minimises Ford’s vulnerability: it was not the outside-half’s fault that Watson allowed himself to be wrong-footed by Care’s clever floated pass to Brown, who duly scored Quins’ only try 15 minutes into the game. If Saracens prevail in the semi-final and deprive Lancaster of the services of Farrell – an outside-half who really can tackle – England will have to be every bit as cute. After all, it is not Turner-Hall who will be on Ford’s case at Eden Park. It will be someone twice as good and twice as powerful, by the name of Ma’a Nonu.