Ben Tapuai was just one of the beaming Quins players at the full-time whistle
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
The showpiece that had been in danger of becoming a sideshow. Covid has rightly born the brunt of our ire for disrupting lives but there were other reasons in play for the sparse backdrop to what has always been a riveting, passionate, beery finale to the season. Noise, colour, elation, heartbreak, a gathering of the clans in the stands, a high-octane shootout down below, it has always been a special day. And, for all the limitations and complications, so it proved again.
Players, fans, take a bow. For 80 uplifting minutes, the Covid Blues were banished. It was a record-breaking score for a final. But more than mere stats, it was a final that gladdened the spirits, showed how rugby can be played, perhaps should be played. It was rugby of all our schooldays, without anxiety or hang-up.
The contest played true to script. And for that we can be truly thankful for it gave us a rousing climax to the season even if the number of eyeballs on the spectacle was much-reduced. The match itself was full of edge and trickery, yellow cards, penalty tries, an Andre Esterhuizen super-try, a real humdinger right to the final seconds. Harlequins were determined not to die wondering: Exeter Chiefs were hell-bent on clinging to their crown. It was rugby in the raw, all crunch and cleverness.
And ‘Quins prevailed, deservedly so. Their rise from the doldrums of winter and a parting of the ways with director of rugby, Paul Gustard, has been no fluke. They played for each other first and foremost, an antidote to the rugby by numbers that too many teams play by. It requires nerve, no little skill and blokes like man-of-the-match Joe Marler to anchor the scrum. Without proper foundations, any edifice crumbles. Theirs is not Harlem Globetrotters rugby for the outcome does matter. It is not about entertainment for entertainment’s sake, joyous as it is to watch. It is about getting the best from a certain bunch of blokes. No buy-in, no results, no point.
Quins secured their first title since 2012 in thrilling fashion
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It takes quite a team to get the better of Exeter Chiefs. On a sun-kissed summer’s day, Harlequins were that side. A champion outfit in all senses.
For all the fine efforts of the warriors-with-studs on the pitch, though, there was still a sense of frustration that only 10,000 spectators were allowed into the ground albeit the acoustics managed to amplify the sound. There has been many a full house England Test match that has been church-like by comparison. The club game is more partisan, less stuffy, more fun.
The approach roads, normally a throng of demob-happy types rallying for one last hurrah, had only the dreary suburban feel of a Saturday shopping afternoon. Twickenham or Tesco? The superstore won. The shoppers didn’t know what they were missing.
Rugby has been badly served by such restrictions. These clubs deserved better. For Harlequins, this was a much yearned-for trip across the A316, a visit to the Big Place over the road, a stadium that they have only experienced for such an exalted occasion only once, their triumph in 2012, the only time in which they have made it through in the 18 years of staging a final. That is a poor return for a club with such deep traditions, never mind proximity to HQ. Theirs is a salutary tale of the professional era. No-one is owed anything. Chiefs have plotted and schemed and invested to get to the Promised Land. Harlequins (and others) have fretted and frittered by comparison.
THE COMEBACK KINGS! 🃏
The moment @Harlequins won the #GallagherPremFinal! 🏆 pic.twitter.com/fz6kglaAr1
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) June 26, 2021
But this ‘Quins generation are determined to change the narrative. They have brought such brio to the second half of the season. Damn it, they make it look so enjoyable to be out there. They were faithful to their creed. They gave it a crack, running free but scrumming strongly, too. Marler would be a huge asset for the Lions in South Africa.
The fans’ throaty commitment managed to overcome any numerical limitations as they reacted to the ebbs and flows, from Harlequins’ early bold strike for a try, to Tom O’Flaherty dancing and Sam Simmonds zipping. It was brazen and engaging. By comparison, Friday night’s Top 14 final between Toulouse and La Rochelle was a one-paced dud.
It would take the rest of the summer to itemise all the fine moments. If you did happen to miss it, head for catch-up. You won’t regret it.