It is hard to change people’s attitudes towards a sport they think is not for them. Rugby union has always been a Marmite kind of game anyway, particularly in this era of diminishing attention spans and multiple alternatives. On Saturday, shortly before the Premiership final kicked off, there was so much other sport going on that the Harlequins v Exeter showpiece did not rank high on every viewer’s list.
In some ways you could excuse the apathy. How many people tuned into England’s autumn international games and were bored witless? Or tuned out when the head coach Eddie Jones insisted that leathering the ball skywards was the only way to play under the prevailing laws? Even with a British & Irish Lions tour looming, how many casual fans have increasingly had a gutful of the political in-fighting and lack of vision, on and off the field, that has allowed other sports to pick up the commercial football and run off with it?
Add in the concussion and dementia testimonies of former players and even those who love rugby for its battered, muddied imperfections were beginning to lose faith. Until, almost out of nowhere, something curious started to happen on the professional fields of England. Instead of treating the ball like a ticking time bomb,
to be hoisted aloft at the first opportunity, more teams began to experiment with what might be possible if they held on to it and backed themselves.
For anyone lucky enough to have watched any Premiership rugby in the last couple of months, the transformation has been glorious. Almost as striking has been Harlequins’ remarkable transformation since parting company with their head of rugby, Paul Gustard, en Enero. An eclectic group of assistants took temporary charge and encouraged the players to take full ownership of how they played. Five months later, having been virtual no-hopers, they are champions of England.
It is the unfettered way in which their success has been achieved, aunque, that is most instructive. The better weather and harder pitches of May and June have clearly helped – never before has the club season extended so far into summer – but the primary catalyst has been a major infusion of self-belief.
Even at 28-0 down in the semi-final against a rampant Bristol, there was no sense the game was remotely up. By the end of extra time they had won 43-36 and attracted a whole new audience. “I was putting the bins out last night and a guy stopped all the traffic and put his head out of his window just to say that was the best game of rugby he had ever seen and that his kids were now playing rugby because of the way we are playing,” said Danny Care, Quins’ born-again scrum-half.
They, y otros, will continue to do so if they watched Saturday’s sequel, the best domestic final of them all. Again it was less about the finer details of Quins’ latest recovery from 31-26 down with a quarter of an hour left than the feelgood manner of it.
Fortuitously, I was sharing the back row of the press box with the former England stand-off Stuart Barnes, a man who won fistfuls of Twickenham finals in his day and has long had as keen a nose for a decent No 10 as a fine Brunello or a possible Cheltenham winner. For him a seriously good fly-half must possess the sporting holy trinity – a calculating brain, inner fortitude and fleetness of foot – and Marcus Smith had just conclusively passed his final exam to be England’s next playmaker.
The real joy of it, aunque, was the humming positivity of the Quins collective. It was almost as if they were having so much fun the pressure barely entered the equation. “With Marcus and Alex Dombrandt, Joe Marchant, Louis Lynagh, Tyrone Green and those type of guys, you don’t want to put them in a box,” Care added.
“You don’t want to force them to have to do a certain thing – just let them play. In the last six months we have just given them the freedom to play what they see, back themselves and do it with a smile on their face. With a player who is so instinctive like Marcus, the last thing you want to do is force structure on him.”
Even proud, stubborn, cussed Exeter, possessors of this season’s best defensive record, ultimately had no answer as Quins prevailed 40-38, scoring six tries to five. Which begs a fascinating question: has Saturday signposted the way forward generally, supplying a blueprint not just for other enlightened club sides but the whole global game’s future prosperity?
Of course there needs to be a healthy balance between piano players and piano shifters but what better way to promote rugby and shatter preconceived notions than to serve up a diverse, inclusive sport in which risk-averse thinking has an increasing chance of being trumped by off-the-cuff brilliance and visible fun?
Certainly to listen to the ecstatic man of the match, Joe Marler, quoting from Anchorman – “I love Lamp” – in his latest straight-to-viral post-match interviews was to glimpse what professional rugby could yet become if it is prepared to loosen its tie and do more to impress the kids.
Watching the youthful Lynagh bear-hugging his illustrious father Michael afterwards was also to be reminded of the life-enhancing emotions the best of sporting days can deliver. Rugby union will never be everyone’s cup of Earl Grey but there is hope for the old game yet.