Last Saturday had me feeling like an overexcited school kid who has just had his eyes opened to the magic of rugby, courtesy of a five-hour extravaganza.
Bristol versus Quins defied all logic. It was 100-odd minutes of Wacky Races stuff, with Harlequins playing the role of the Ant Hill mob – ducking, dodging, just about staying alive. Danny Care was Clyde, no question, the diminutive leader who always had an answer.
I sat there with my two boys not believing what I was seeing. At 28-0 down and with Bristol in complete control, I turned to my eldest and educated him on rugby being a north-south game, with Quins losing all the contacts, chasing shadows, playing lateral. It was an absolute car crash.
But what the hell do I know? All Quins needed was a chink of light, a spark, a lifeline and it came in that Alex Dombrandt try just before half-time. There is an element of Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle in how Quins play: their philosophy is you score five, we’ll score seven! Attack, attack, attack.
Then, down in Exeter, you did not think Chiefs’ meeting with Sale could match it but when Dan du Preez scored in the 71st minute Sale were within a converted try of making it 37-37. That would have been six points better than Bristol and Quins’ dull 31-31 normal-time draw.
The moment I knew someone was toying with us last weekend was when the clock went red, signalling the next stoppage would end the game. Exeter were clear on the scoreboard and the ball was passed to Joe Simmonds, the calm, collected, measured Exeter fly-half. He was 10 yards from the touchline, facing the rolling Devonian hills over the temporary stand: all he had to do was boot the ball off the field and that would be the end of the game. It’s a skill he could do blindfolded. What happened? He shanked it back infield. More pandemonium.
People often ask me why I went on all fours at the end of the World Cup final in 2003 – well, that is exactly why. If Joe Simmonds can miss touch from eight yards, I would have had an air shot in Sydney and Matt Rogers would have scored under the posts!
So, what about Saturday’s Premiership play-off final? There are so many arguments and counter-arguments. Everything screams Exeter but back in 2012, the last time Quins were in the final, everything screamed Leicester and Quins battered them..
Exeter’s control is too much, but every time Exeter got clear against Sale, they made an error and let their opponents back into it. Take the moment, from a restart, when Rob Du Preez put up a high, hanging kick. Jonny Hill (a Lion) was under it; Luke Cowan-Dickie (a Lion) was lifting him; and in behind were Harry Williams and Henry Slade (both England internationals).
No contest, right? Wrong. Young Arron Reed (no international caps) nipped in to catch it, he offloaded to Ben Curry (no caps), and he gave it to Rohan Janse van Rensburg (one South Africa cap). Try scored, and Sale were back in the game.
The week before Sale were 19-3 up against Exeter and were close to snatching the home semi-final off them. But they did not and that is so often the case with the Chiefs: you feel like you play all the rugby, but a glance at the scoreboard with 10 minutes to go and you wonder how you’re losing.
Exeter are like a glacier: I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. Rather, it’s as if they are a vast object moving inextricably forward: patient, but simply unstoppable.
Quins will be willing to throw it around and be unconventional, loving the broken field. Exeter want to get them in a headlock early, with hand-to-hand close-quarter combat and wear them down.
The final reminds me a little of Saracens against Bath in 2015. Bath were full of superstars, with George Ford, Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson up against the juggernaut Saracens pack. At half-time, though, Saracens were 25-3 up and it was all over.
Quins are better than that Bath team, with more bite, more mongrel. And even when I write 25-3 down you can hear Nick Evans saying – “is that all?”
So, what are the head-to-heads that will decide the final?
Harry Williams v Joe Marler
Or, the battle of the barbers, with a mullet (Wiliams) taking on a mohawk (Marler).
Marler is playing the best rugby of his life. With no international rugby to worry about, he stays out there, defying all the expectations of props. He starts and finishes games and he destroys opponents, whether they started the match or came on at 50 minutes, almost shouting “next” as they come and go.
Joe Marler is playing the best rugby of his life right now
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
He contributes around the field, tackling, mauling, grappling, and his hands are always full of something, or someone. The chat is still there, but not at every maul or scrum – those antics have been parked a little. Instead, he just looks like he’s enjoying himself – taking a helicopter to games, lots of smiles all round.
This is a huge challenge for Williams, a lad I have rated highly for a long time. He is all over the park, carrying, handling, tackling. But today he has one job: keep Marler quiet in more ways than one.
He must not let Quins gain ascendancy in the scrum. Quins are not all flashy pants and multicoloured jerseys: they bend over and push and lift and leap in the set-piece as well as any. It gives them an incredible platform from which to launch their wonderful attacking threat.
Jonny Hill v Matt Symons
One we know a lot about – and it’s another mullet. Hill looks absolutely ready to make an impact with the Lions in South Africa. He scores as part of Exeter’s try machine, but also gallops around, happy to play fly-half and boot it down field with his trusty left peg.
As for Symons, he is someone you would not recognise if he was stood next to you. A quiet lump with a massive engine, he did some rowing, played a bit in New Zealand, moved clubs a few times, so he has a bit of a back-story. He definitely never shows us his kicking game, but he gets the job done and fills the middle of the field. When he plays Quins are always competitive.
Sam Simmonds v Alex Dombrandt
Try machine v try machine. Simmonds has made some mighty busts, but his tries feel like they are always part of the collective effort. Lethal dynamism and low-slung ball carrying make him nigh on impossible to stop and he loves sitting in the cockpit at the back of a maul as Exeter drive forwards to the line.
Sam Simmonds has been scoring tries for fun
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
One pick-up from the base on his own line last week saw him come face to face with Tom Curry on a blindside – very few people rinse Curry, but Simmonds did.
Dombrandt has the big runs, the big impacts, and polishes them off with tries from distance. He can see space and opportunity two or three phases ahead. He is also not all about bulk at speed: he is patient, and senses when there is a sniff. Yes, he then flies through it, but it is not all about bullying defences.
Jack Maunder v Danny Care
Maunder is much younger than Symons but he is another that makes few headlines while over-indexing on performance. He is tough, loves a low tackle, a kick chase and a dart in amongst the heavy traffic. When you are sandwiched by the Simmonds boys you get pigeonholed as the conduit. He is so much more than that.
Care, like Marler, is benefitting from no international exposure. He delivers tempo, strategic kicking and lethal runs, while also being the strike-play orchestrator. Quins’ very own Jack Grealish. When he is flying the cameras can’t help but follow him.
Henry Slade v Luke Northmore
Slade has one last hurrah and then must hope that an opportunity opens up to jump on a plane to South Africa – he must have been extremely close to a Lions call up and, to be honest, I’m still not sure how he did not make it.
Another impressive performance from Henry Slade may earn him a late Lions call-up
So, he needs to wobble his quads and go to work. Like Care, the Lions disappointment has subsided and he has just cranked it up for Exeter, helped by some epic work done on his inside by Ollie Devoto. Offloading, kicking, nibbling at outside shoulders – Slade has it all. This is a great stage for a great player.
As for Northmore, leaving him out was the only thing I think Quins got wrong against Bristol: he had to play. He fills the midfield. He isn’t perfect, but he has real ballast, power and hunts players down. Without him, Bristol had it all their own way. Northmore did not come on and boss it from the 21st minute but he changed the ferocity of the midfield impacts and the defensive picture that Bristol saw.
Stuart Hogg v Tyrone Green
You have to love Rob Baxter. He has so much trust in his squad that last week he sat Hogg on the bench and sent out Jack Nowell at full-back in his first game in the 15 shirt since the Premiership final of 2019. Nowell crushed it – so back comes Hoggy.
Hogg is all action. When he kicks, he leathers it, but he also loves to run and confront. The Exeter pattern of play gets him plenty of sighters with the ball. They are patient and go coast to coast with the ball, giving him a lot of looks at opposition defences and he waits for the right time to press the accelerator. Moving to Devon was the best move he ever made – it got him out of the Scottish bubble, winning trophies and changing his mindset.
The Mike Brown ban seemed like a death blow for Quins. Certainly in the top three Harlequins players of all time, Brown was also in brilliant form. But Green has just cracked on, and provided a reminder that there really is no substitute for pace. He has terrified opponents. Dancing feet can get him away from the first would-be tackler and then scorched earth is left behind as he races away, something which also helps set Dombrandt away.
He does all the basics well and he is tough – really tough. He takes no backward step and it is a testament to his belligerence that nobody has mentioned Quins are missing Brown’s edge at the back.