I KNOW IT’S HERE SOMEWHERE Westport and Ballina players go in search of possession in terrible conditions during last weekend’s Heineken Connacht Junior Cup game at Heffernan Park. Pic: Conor McKeown
Harlequins back on the sunny side
AFTER an intense period of games over the festive season that involved teams in both the Celtic League and the English Premiership playing up to four games in sixteen days, it’s nice to get back to the relative norm of one game a week. Even still, after assessing the damage, teams had to regroup, refocus and rearm for battle as the challenge of European progression or survival or pride was looming large on the horizon.
Here at Harlequins, Christmas was almost cancelled after a home defeat to one of our London rivals, Saracens, on December 22. However, after a hugely important win against the Worcester Warriors at Sixways five days later, and vital wins against Newcastle and Bath during the first week of 2007, our haul of 14 points was the most any team collected over the holiday period.
Our 9-3 victory over Bath – which was played in terrible conditions at the Stoop – saw us move to seventh in the table, sixteen points clear of Worcester who are bottom, two points behind Sarries in sixth, and twelve behind the pace-setters, Bristol.
As mentioned earlier, last weekend saw both the European Cup and the Challenge Cup action resume with round five of the group stages. After a couple of light days early in the week, when the focus was primarily on recovery or weights depending on the amount of game time you got in the last couple of weeks, we trained on Wednesday and travelled to Montpellier on Thursday for a game on Friday night.
Although we defeated the French side at the Stoop a week after recording our first win of the season in our opening game of the competition against Connacht, our two consecutive defeats to Bath prior to Christmas meant we were travelling to the South of France in search of a bonus point victory. Anything else would make it almost impossible to progress to the quarter-finals as one of three best runner-ups from the five groups.
The sunny, dry conditions along the Mediterranean were in stark contrast to the wind and rain we have grown accustomed to battling against in recent weeks, never mind the opposition!
As if we were solar powered, we felt both recharged and energised and the thought of playing some running rugby was a welcome return. Backed by a large and greatly appreciative travelling support of multi-coloured shirts, Adrian Jarvis kicked us into an early 3-0 lead. Sure, we needed a bonus point but it was essential to win the game first…take your points and the goals will come and all that!
Thanks to a converted try from prop Aston Croall and a further penalty from Jarvis, we headed in at the break 13-6 better off. Montpellier, playing for nothing but pride, fought themselves back into the game and twice levelled the scores at 20-20 and again at 27-27 with seven minutes to play.
I then banged over a penalty from in front of the posts as Jarvis had been replaced by winger and regular ‘bag of tricks’, Dave Strettle at out-half. Then, with time almost up, second row Simon Miall pounced on a loose ball just inside our half to pin his ears back for a good six or seven metres before unselfishly passing to Strettle to outpace the cover and score our fourth try. Thankfully, he left me with the easiest of conversions and as the Montpellier fans booed, the ref blew his whistle for the final time.
Some teams may have experienced a few nightmares on their travels to the South of France – getting hammered out the gate by a rampant Toulouse or Biarritz etc – but it is a good experience playing in what can be a hostile environment. When the home band is playing and the crowd is singing and clapping you know you could be in trouble.
Conversely, if the crowd is booing and jeering, especially over every decision by the referee, you know you’re doing something right! Either way, the French are very hospitable after the game in their relaxed, ‘sure, where would you be rushing to?’ manner. The standard post-match pasta and chicken is nowhere to be seen, instead there is oysters, quiche slices, finger desserts and wine. If it were after a Premiership game we would be saying it was a shambles!
CONNACHT ARE WAITING NOW IN THE LONG GRASS
WE returned from France to London on Saturday afternoon with a full week to recover and prepare for Connacht. Michael Bradley’s team, who lost to Bath last Friday night in Galway, are unable to qualify for the quarter-finals but will still be hoping to avenge their last minute defeat against us at the Sportsground back in October.
They are playing some good rugby at the moment and can feel disappointed that they didn’t take more points from both Ulster and Munster over the Christmas period as well as finding themselves out of the Challenge Cup. Sometimes an animal can be more dangerous when wounded. There is a crew coming over from my home town, Ballina, for the game also...that could also be dangerous too!
Elsewhere, Ulster will again be disappointed not to have progressed to the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup, especially after opening the competition with a comprehensive demolition of Toulouse that had promised so much. Defeats to both London Irish and Llanelli Scarlets, coupled with Friday night’s defeat at home to the Welsh side, has ruined their hopes for another season. There was better news for the two other Irish provinces as both Leinster and Munster progressed to the last eight with victories over Edinburgh and Bourgoin respectively. Leinster played some great rugby to defeat the Scottish side by thirty-nine points and will be travelling to Gloucester hoping to secure a home quarter-final.
After their narrow victory in Geneva, Munster now face another mouth-watering tussle against Leicester at Thomond Park to see who finishes top of Group Four. And when all is said and done next weekend it will be back to the domestic leagues before the Six Nations go head-to-head.
There is just no letting up at the moment.
YOUR COMMENTS PLEASE TO GAVINDUFFY@MAYONEWS.IE