While they ended up on the wrong side of an eight-point margin, and thus in practice got nothing from the game, Connacht’s performance against high-flying Harlequins was worth all the praise that comes its way. As the old saw goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression: in their debut in the Heineken Cup, the Westies showed that they belong in the competition.
They were probably a little unfortunate not to come away with the losing bonus point – actually, they were definitely unfortunate – but it was a moral victory of the first order. Going into the game, Quins were flying high with a ten-game winning streak. While Connacht ultimately weren’t able to break that run, the game certainly put a few things in perspective.
The best club in England, with their record of eight wins from eight games in the Aviva Premiership, snuck past the worst club in Ireland, who have won just three of their eight Rabo Direct Pro 12 contests. Snuck by them. At home. Only if Connacht had turned them over could you have seen a stronger indictment of the remorseless, baseless hype that typified Sky’s coverage of the English league.
Harlequins play a nice brand of rugby under Conor O’Shea – and had some lovely break-outs with nice inter-passing – but owe their current position at the top of the Premiership table to the fact that just one of their players [Nick Easter-Egg] was at the World Cup. Why’s that? Because their players, for the most part, are nothing special. The Mole already ran a little exercise in response to Yosser Edwards’ prediction that Quins would qualify from this group ahead of Toulouse, and if anything the evidence of last night’s match serves to harden his stance.
While teams like Northampton [Hartley, Lawes, Foden, Ashton, Wood], Leicester [Cole, Deacon, Croft, Youngs, Flood, Tuilagi] and Bath [Mears, Wilson, Moody and Banahan] stocked the bulk of the English RWC11 squad [as well as providing a number of players to other countries], Quins were blithely unaffected by the whole thing. That works out very well when you’re 4F at home, but when the big soldiers come back from the war, how are things going to pan out at the Stoop?
On the evidence of this game, Quins have been living in a fools’ paradise. They have a seriously classy out-half in Nick Evans, and a young loosehead in Joe Marler who looks every bit the prospect he has been hyped up to be in the last twelve months. They’ve got Nick Easter, who’s still an international class footballer. And, eh … that’s it.
The Mole hadn’t seen much of them before this game, and was very keen to see Chris Robshaw play. The way that the Sky Sports analysts [and much of the English rugby media, in fairness] had been hyping him up seemed at odds with the Mole’s memories of him as a player. A solid grafter; a blond Pat Sanderson – that’s how the Mole thought of him in seasons gone past. He was a bit tickled to hear Robshaw referred to as ‘world class’ by Kiwi host James Gemmell in a question posed to debutant analyst Alan Quinlan … you could see that it sort of slipped out of him. Maybe it was true though? Maybe Robshaw had hit the straps and was a different player than the Mole remembered.
Our Survey Says … Robshaw is still the same ordinary sort of grafter as he always was, definitely not the top class openside he had been touted as, and not really there as a blindside either. The latter position is one where England are well stocked at the moment, and both Tom Croft and Tom Wood bring an awful lot more to the table in terms of athleticism and line out ability than Robshaw does. In terms of opensides, the Mole was far more impressed with the performance of England U20 Matt Kvesic for Worcester against Stade Francais in the Amlin Challenge Cup of Thursday night.
As for the Quins three-quarter line? Nothing special whatsoever. With the possible exception of Jordan Turner-Hall [with a nod to our friends at Whiff of Cordite, there really should be a big oooooooooh! ahead of that], the largely unfancied Connacht back line were the better men on the day. The Mole has been aware of Eoin Griffin and Tiernan O’Halloran since the U20s Six Nations and knew that they had gas, but both players put in top quality performances on the big stage last night; better performances than the Mole had been expecting, to be honest. John Muldoon took everything Samoan wrecking ball Fa’asavalu had to throw at him and probably edged the contest, and there’s no doubt whatsoever that Mike McCarthy owned the second-row battle. Michael Swift also put in a serious effort at the coal-face, and his stand-up tackling was a big feature of the close-in exchanges.
Simply playing in the Heineken Cup has given the Connacht players more exposure. Playing so well in their first match out has given them immense credibility.