Harlequins 33 Wasps 17

Harlequins 33 London Wasps 17 (14/04/2012)

After surprising myself by enjoying a game of rugby for the first time in my life two weeks ago, I decided to give the game another go, at the much nearer home of Harlequins, The Stoop.

At just over half an hour to get there down the M3, it’s only a slight distance more than going to the Madejski. But while London Irish were also at home the same day, the lure of a sold out Stoop, plus the chance to have a peek at the nearby Twickenham, tempted me rather more easily than the prospect of a starkly two-thirds empty Madejski Stadium.

In contrast to Bath’s Rec, nestled in as an almost integral part of the historic city centre, The Stoop and Twickenham Stadium finds themselves encamped in leafy suburbia, with the incongruous sight of tiers of concrete and steel looming over Terry & June bay-windowed semis.

Unlike Bath’s Rec, The Stoop is also a modern ground, fully covered, looking somewhat larger than its 14,282 capacity. The stated capacity is listed at around 600 higher than that, but each of Harlequins’ four sell-outs this season has posted exactly 14,282 as the attendance. While not having Bath’s charm, happily each stand is different, avoiding the identikit look of many modern football grounds. The redevelopment history is somewhat sketchy, but it appears the first pro-era stand was the Etihad Stand, on the East side of the ground. This stand, for around 4000 people, is cranked into curve along one side. The roof above is oddly book-ended by angled roof sections at each end, folding downwards like flaps on a deer-stalker hat. The green, grey, sky blue, maroon and brown seated sections mimic the slightly eccentric colour scheme of the home club’s shirts.

To the south of this stand is a 4000 or so seater boxy goalpost beam covered stand, looking like an escapee from a northern football ground, with the repeated Harlequin colour scheme acting as a disguise. Behind here is the “Quins Head” beer tent and beer garden, with more food and drink options just around the corner.

They certainly have plenty of options too, with the hog roast stall, “luxury” (i.e. expensive) burger stalls, two more bars, coffee bar, Belgium waffle bar and an ice cream van all vying for trade in one the corner. All filling the air with aromas which while individually pleasant, amount to a slightly nauseating attack on the olfactory senses when combined together. At £6 for a cheeseburger, they seem to be targeting a more expensive clientele than the average football crowd too. With replica shirts in the club shop at £50, not to mention the silk ties at £65, my souvenirs of the day would be kept to a minimum. At least the beer was cheaper than what I was used to in the Madejski, but then again so is a time share in the Algarve (nearly) so that’s not saying much.

I said my souvenirs were kept to a minimum, but I did get one. Harlequins had decided to wedge thousands of free flags into the seats around the stadium. There was one for my seat – or at least there was after I nabbed one from a few seats away and put it there – so uncool or not, I was not missing out of a free flag.

My free flag, and seat obviously, were in the relatively new, even for The Stoop, LV stand. Unlike the cranked Etihad stand opposite, this stand was straight along the touchline, but was a similar size, with executive boxes lining the back. It could have done with those deer-stalker flaps too, to keep out the surprising cold wind whipping in from the north, although at least the norther corner did offer a good view of Twickenham, 400 yards to the north.

The LV stand is the new main stand, including the changing rooms. Unusually for football fans used to seeing grounds with a secure entrance for visiting teams, the arriving Wasps players just casually strolled in through the car park, through the fans, before going down the tunnel. Despite being a modern stand, the designers could have learned something from stands elsewhere about enabling a crowd – especially a crowd which is allowed to drink beer during the game – to get to the loo at half time. It was definitely something of a scrum to get in, although I guess if you are going to have a scrum anywhere, a rugby ground is as good as any.

At the northern end was the last temporary part of the stadium. This was a seated section for about 2500, with a rather flimsy looking roof supported by enough pillars to tempt me into buying a ticket in the more expensive LV stand, rather than slumming it in this section. This stand, like all the others, had the same colour scheme. There’s no way of forgetting who plays here.

With the teams coming out to the sound of Manfred Mann informing the Wasps players that they “ain’t seen nothin’ like the mighty Quin(n)” they might have had good reason to be nervous. Sucked deep into a relegation battle, with the prospect of administration hanging over them too, it wasn’t the ideal time to face the league leaders.

The excellent match programme had talk of showing no mercy to their struggling neighbours (and had also talked in-depth about the greatness of Rowntree’s producing the tube of all-blackcurrant fruit pastilles – a subject sorely overlooked by match programmes I feel) and set out to get business done as early as possible. After exchanging early penalties, another Harlequins penalty put them 6-3 ahead after just 10 minutes, and they never seriously looked threatened from that moment on. Harlequins just looked too strong.

Two tries, albeit both with failed conversion attempts, but Harlequins 16-3 ahead inside half an hour, and it was threatening to turn into a rout. Just before half time Wasps pulled a try back, when promising younger (so I read – I can’t claim to really know these things) Christian Wade somehow found a gap right through the middle of Harlequins’ defence to score under the posts. With this try converted, and the score back to 16-10, there was a bit of wonder if the two missed conversions, as well as the wasted first half pressure, might let Wasps back into the game.

Early in the second half though, Harlequins powered the ball over for their third try of the afternoon, and an error strewn passage of play from Wasps allowed Harlequins to add a fourth try just a few minutes later. With both of these tries converted, and a penalty added shortly after, the score was 33-10, and for the second time I was watching a rugby match effectively over with nearly 25 minutes left. Unlike Bath two weeks earlier, Wasps didn’t give up and did manage to force a try in the corner with 15 minutes left, but never looked likely to make up the 17 point deficit in the remaining time.

With Harlequins having already earned a bonus point for scoring four tries in the game, they seemed content to hold what they had. A flurry of late substitutions – my favourite being the addition of Harlequins’ Aston Croall, with his heavy build and thick black bushy beard making him look like an evil Santa – seemed to just break up the play, and 33-17 was indeed the final score.

The majority of those in the crowd, especially those with free flags, went home happy. The home fans will be dreaming of the 400 yard trip north to Twickenham for the Aviva Premiership Final – a game I’ll also be at thanks to snapping up a general sale ticket – while Wasps will be looking nervously at what looks a relegation showdown at home against Newcastle on the season’s last day.

Includes extra pictures from the Premiership Semi Final, Harlequins 25 Northampton 23

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