Twickenham, Premiership Final

Harlequins 30 Leicester 23 (26th May 2012)

I don’t have the best record with play-off finals. Before yesterday I’d been to eight of them, and been in the losing end on seven of those occasions – three with my own team of Reading. It was therefore that I approached yesterdays play-off final with hope rather than expectation.

I couldn’t claim to be a Harlequins fan by any stretch on the imagination. I’d only seen three games of rugby ever since finding I quite enjoyed the sport two months ago, but two of those game were Harlequins victories, including a dramatic last gasp win over Northampton to book a place a yesterday’s final. Despite may apparent lack of true affinity, I did really want them to win though.

It wasn’t just my bad record that had me thinking Leicester would probably win. Leicester are the juggernaut of the English game. They were playing their eight consecutive final, and despite finishing runners-up to Harlequins, they were clear favourites with the bookmakers at 2/5 on with some. Another reason I wanted them to lose though was that they’d also recently changed their shirts from green, red and white hoops to a hideous garish mess of a similarly coloured tiger stripe pattern. Anyone thinking Hull City’s early 90s tiger stripe effort – looking like the someone had cut arm holes into a tart’s mini-skirt – couldn’t be topped in the “WTF were they thinking?” stakes, should see the current Leicester Tigers effort.

I’d seen Twickenham Stadium before, having popped over before my first visit to The Stoop, just 400 yards to the south. Then though, it was all shut up. Today it was alive with an expectant capacity crowd. It’s hard to beat the anticipation of walking to a final, never less so than when under deep blue Mediterranean looking skies. The walk from Twickenham Station to the ground might not have the same fame as the walk down Wembley Way, but the end-of-the-street tantalising glimpse of the stadium doesn’t have Wembley’s less glamorous backdrop of industrial units either. The residential route here was lined with pubs, cafes and shops, not to mention the inevitable road-side stalls of food purveyors and copyright-dogders selling opportunistic scarves and flags. One nifty copyright-skirting “Super Quins” scarf in Harlequins’ colours almost had me reaching for my wallet, but I decided to wait and see if there was anything better on offer. Alas there wasn’t, but at £12 each, I wasn’t tempted to turn back.

Those approaching from the station were presented with the backdrop of the new south stand. Like Wembley, this is a steel and glass construction, but with a much softer edge, avoiding the dreary conference centre look that makes Wembley’s exterior so dull. A statue of players going up for the ball at a line-out dominates on arrival, again giving the place that more human feel. The glass building behind may be the home of the RFU, as well as a Marriot Hotel as various shops, but still gives you the feeling the place is about fans and players, not just making money.

The other three sides of the stadium aren’t quite as flash. With their exposed staircases and escalators being almost reminiscent of a brutalist concrete Pompidou Centre, it could easily have been a little grim. Again though, little touches such as an ornamental gate entrance, the external area serving as an outdoor concourse, and the way the surrounding areas had been turned into a fan park, allowed the place to shine.

My ticket was for the lower tier, but I wanted to go up to the top tier and take a few photos from there. At football you’d expect you entry to either be barred altogether, or at very least you’d expect a jobsworth steward to tell you to clear off. Here though, although a steward came over, with the seating bowl virtually empty he just had a chat about who I wanted to win, and how much he liked rugby people. On hearing I was a recent convert, he even suggested taking up the game. At 42, I’ve perhaps left that a little late, and while I didn’t consider it, standing next to the 6’7″ Harlequins’ Ollie Kohn as he hugged a fan after the final whistle rather hammered home how unlikely a scenario that was.

I’d actually bought my ticket for the final just a few days after by first rugby match at Bath and the end of March, before I’d seen Harlequins play even once, but by luck I found myself in what seemed to be the Harlequins end. While the whole stadium was completely unsegregated, the official ticket allocations for each club (a surprisingly low 10,000 tickets each) did seem to be split between the north and south halves of the stadium.

The fan mix, the weather, the building anticipation and the general vibe reminded me of the world cup games I’d been to in Germany in 2006. Aware as people were of the enormity of the game ahead, people were also determined to enjoy the day, win or lose…..but hopefully win.

Another good comparison to Wembley was the laid back approach to pre-match entertainment. While many limited their pre-match entertainment to sampling the wares of the many bars around the stadium (remembering those entering the seated area were limited to “only” four pints each at a time) once in your seat you didn’t have “entertainment” rammed down your throat like a Wembley. There was no PA guy seemingly on a mission to make your ears bleed, shouting inane nonsense to whip up the atmosphere, while only succeeding in making 90,000 people think he should be whipped. In fact I can’t even remember if they played any music over the PA at all, which is how it should be.

My only complaint would be against Aviva. While rugby is no doubt grateful for the sponsorship, the amount of signage about made you think that rather than being the Aviva Premiership Final, it was the AVIVA!!!!!! premiership final. Even the trophy, when presented after the game, had Aviva ribbons on it rather than the colours of the winning club.

Twickenham itself is certainly one of the best venues I’ve ever been to. It’s huge, and works in looks as well as offering a great view. Walking out of the top tier and seeing the stadium spread out was stunning. Three tiers of green seats ringed the pitch. The lower tier was biggest, but all three were fairly steep, and close enough to the pitch to make an 82000 venue almost seem intimate. There’s nothing flash about the place. It’s just simple and it works. I guess it shows what can be done when all fans are an equal priority, rather than designing a stadium for the 15000 people in the corporate section. Supposedly “elitist” rugby being a game for the people, with the common man’s game selling out for cash – who’d have thought it?

With the stadium filling and kick-off approaching, I was surprised how nervous I was. While not strictly neutral, it was still somewhat unexpected just how strongly I wished to not have yet another experience of losing a play-off final, watching and hearing the other lot down the other end celebrating. Heaven knows how the fans felt. Harlequins had never won the title in their history, and it would take a supreme effort to win this one.

If there were early nerves then they received a steadier with a very early penalty putting Harlequins 3-0 up. Another early penalty was missed, with the ball coming back off the post, but before there was any chance for that to play on the mind, Harlequins ran over the line at the corner for a try just a minute later. Even the missed conversion, again hitting the post, couldn’t subdue a burst of multi-coloured Harlequin optimism. Maybe it really would be their day.

More importantly, a mix of determination and discipline seemed to be making it hard for Leicester to settle, and good movement made it hard for them when they hadn’t got the ball. Even when an exchange of penalties had narrowed the score to 11-6, Harlequins were looking to be controlling the game.

Then it went wrong. A line-out was messed up, allowing the ball to be passed to Leicester’s 6’6″ Tongan Steve Mafi. He powered through the Harlequins ranks like a Pamplona bull, racing to the line and blowing a kiss to the crowd before levelling the scores. Leicester’s promising 19 year old youngster George Ford converted to put Leicester ominously ahead nine minutes before the break. The prospect of playing well, yet still be losing, would be a bad state of mind to take into half time.

Just before half time though, things swung back in Harlequins favour. Referee Wayne Barnes was hardly a popular choice for the final among Harlequins fans due to his habit of being in the middle when Quins lose, but his decision to yellow card Leicester’s Thomas Waldrom was probably crucial. The 6′ but 17 1/2 st Waldrom trudged off with a face like he’d just been told it was salad for lunch.

Nick Evans kicked the resulting penalty to edge Harlequins back in front, just before the teams went in for the break.

From being a minute away from looking nervous and down, Harlequins came out for the second half with renewed vigor. A man up for nine more minutes, they looked determined to make that man advantage count as much as possible. Pressured into giving away two further penalties, Leicester found themselves 13-20 down before returning to full strength. It wasn’t exactly a decisive lead, but it put Harlequins with a score or two of a position that would be one.

While Leicester had played in the previous seven finals, they’d lost four of them, and I did wonder if their bad experiences were causing a bit of a “here we go again” feeling. I also wondered if this game, played in the first hot day of the 2012 half of the season, might favour Harlequins as they spent the week training in the heat of the middle east, courtesy of sponsors Emirates, no doubt. Whatever it was, Harlequins were going for the kill and it looked like if they got one more try, that could be it. On 57 minutes, Harlequins captain Chris Robshaw found a gap through a ragged and harried defence, pouncing to plunge through from a few yards out.

The conversion made the score 27-13, and when a few minutes later yet another penalty made it 30-13, it looked all over bar the shouting. A 17 point lead with just 15 minutes left on the clock should be decisive, just as long as everyone keeps concentrating.

Unfortunately there were a few Harlequin heads already tasting the champagne, and quickly taken tapped penalty allowed Leicester to run through the defence for a try of almost embarrassing cheapness.

When playing top quality opposition that you’ve almost snuffed out all game, you really don’t want to be doing things like that. The nerves start jangling and the opposition find a second wind. When, just three minutes later, a Leicester penalty makes it 30-23, the prospect of throwing away victory suddenly loomed very real. Nine minutes for Harlequins to hold out, or Leicester to score a try to force extra time.

As time ticks by slowly, very slowly, the game gets towards it climax. Leicester have twice kicked the ball towards the Harlequins corner, nearer, then nearer again, to try to get in a position to force the ball over. Time runs out and the game will be over the next time the ball is out of play….or if a try is scored. The crowd are all on their feet. Fans in green urging their team forward those extra few inches. Fans in Harlequins’ numerous colours urge their guys to hold out. Then, a blow on the whistle. It’s a penalty to Harlequins…effectively that’s the game, and the premiership. The players embrace and the fans celebrate. It takes a short while for the game’s final T to be crossed, with the ball being kicked into touch to end the game, as the Leicester players look on, hands on heads, as if they can’t quite believe how close they got.

For Harlequins players and fans though, this is their proudest day since forming a mere 146 years ago, and at last they could taste the champagne for real.

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