Worcester Warriors 26 Harlequins 42 (20th April 2013)
While an detour due to the M4 being completely shut just after Reading might have been a portent of things not being as easy as hoped, the fact that my detour through tiny villages north of Newbury went surprisingly without a hitch maybe hinted at things turning out alright in the end.
This was my first proper away game with Harlequins, as going to the Madejski for London Irish, closer to home for me than The Stoop is, barely seems to count. Unlike football, the rugby world isn’t blessed with loads of stadiums that entice you to make the effort to visit, but Worcester’s Sixways was one of the few, especially for me having driven past it en route to Kidderminster last year. The appeal of a drive through the Cotswolds on the first genuinely warm day of the year just added to it.
I’d been to Worcester, the city, before, to see Worcester City play back in December, and there’s certainly a contrast between the two grounds. Sixways was everything St George’s Lane was not.
First the bad. Rather than being walkable from the City Centre, Sixways was stuck on the outer edge, near a motorway junction, and with only industrial units for neighbours. Secondly, having been developed in the last decade, there was unsurprisingly nothing to match the character of St George’s Lane’s main stand.
If you can get past those points though, everything was positive. The club are certainly much more popular than the football team, drawing crowds ten times higher, and the place reeks of all the ambition that the football club lacks. St George’s Lane felt like somewhere that would have been great in the 1950s, while Sixways, despite Worcester’s inability to drag themselves from the lower end of the table, hints at a positive future.
Dominating the ground, even from outside, is the bulk of the new Slick Stand. Looking like a little brother of the seated Kippax Stand at Maine Road, it towers over most of the ground. Also containing the club shop and offices, it presents the corporate face of a club that clearly means business.
In contrast, opposite, are the older buildings from when the club’s ambitions were rather more modest. A club bar fills one third of this side, with the other taken up by a stand of just seven rows of seats, with curved roof sections above adding a little polish to make it an attractive smaller stand.
At this end of the ground is another newer stand, with two tiers of executive boxes cantilevered almost alarmingly over a seated tier below. Despite being a different design, this stand complements the Slick Stand beside it. Indeed, it’s a feature of the ground that four different sides seem to work together pretty well.
Even the opposite end, being a standard temporary stand, seems to fit in just by using the same navy blue seats throughout. One thing that definitely aids the experience of the place is the ability to walk freely round all sides of the ground. Being a nice sunny day certainly helped, but being able to enjoy a pre-match beer in surroundings more like a beer garden is rather more pleasant than the underground bus station atmosphere at football.
Despite having just sacked the head coach in the week, many fans seemed to want the match to have something of a carnival atmosphere for their last home game of the season. Fancy dress was in abundance, and I can only hope this explained the number of guys in Hawaiian shirts, rather than being a damning indictment on Worcestershire’s fashion sense once the sun comes out.
Worcester might have lost eight of their previous nine league games since Christmas, hence the change of management, but they certainly didn’t look a team feeling sorry for themselves, and opened the scoring with an early try after 13 minutes. Five minutes later though, they were behind, after a penalty and a Harlequins try gave the away side the lead.
From there the score would swing back and forth. Two penalties would put Worcester back ahead, only for two tries, both unconverted, to seemingly give Harlequins a bit of breathing space, although another penalty puts Worcester within 4 points at 16-20 going into half-time.
Within a minute or the restart Worcester were back ahead with another try, and just few minutes later the lead was extended to 6 points with another penalty. Andy Goode, playing his last home game for Worcester, had kicked 16 of Worcester’s 26 points so far, and looked to be leading his side to victory with a rampaging display. However, that would be as good as it got for Worcester. Within five minutes the lead was pegged back to one point when Danny Care got his second try of the game. This conversion was also missed, the third in a row.
In a game that had more turning points than the Hampton Court maze, maybe a crucial one would have been Nick Evan’s penalty attempt for Harlequins five minutes later. After a strong spell of pressure, and perhaps mindful of three consecutive missed conversions, it was a nervy moment. It looked a nervy kick too. Despite Nick Evans steadying kicking style, with a preparatory slow-stride run up, only a couple of pom-poms and a pleated skirt away from similarity with the Greek Evzone’s military steps, it hooked to the left, and only just tucked inside the post to put Harlequins back ahead 28-26.
Harlequins now took a choke-hold on the game, forcing Worcester back into their own half, under increasing pressure. The pressure told with 15 minutes left, when an attempted clearance was smothered and held by Nick Evans, to wipe out memories of his earlier wobbles by running through to score under the posts. No mistake from the conversion from there, and Harlequins led by nine.
The pressure continued, and England fullback Mike Brown was able to effectively clinch the game by running through to add a sixth try for Harlequins with nine minutes left, although the home fans were displeased with the decision to play on with two of their number down injured. One of those two, Semisi Taulava, only left on a stretcher after a very long delay.
The home side did have a late flurry, threatening another try late on, but they need two and a penalty to avoid losing, and that never looked likely, and Harlequins, and their strangely subdued Harlequins away following, celebrated the victory, and booking their play-off place.