It was a well deserved accolade on which to end 2013. Exeter Chiefs topping the bill at Harlequins’ Big Game Experience with 75,000 fans, the biggest crowd ever to watch our boys, as we took on the Mighty Quins.
We’ve been to Twickenham before as a support show in the Championship era: but this time Chiefs were the leading act.
The lads certainly lived up to that billing as they went through the phases with confidence, intensity and real attacking intent. Indeed, our hugely ambitious game plan rocked our illustrious hosts as we put them under the hammer, driving to their 10-yard line with relative ease. It was all going so well until it happened, the fickle finger of fate wagged against us.
England and Quins captain Chris Robshaw jumped the gun to run our side of the ruck. At the sight of the nation’s leader blocking his path, Haydn Thomas – celebrating his 150th league game in Chiefs colours, great effort Ratman – was forced to check and change direction. Our early impetus was lost, triggering a catalogue of errors that led to us conceding a try a minute later.
Yes, it was super play from Robshaw, who did what any openside flanker worth his salt would do, but offside is offside and it should have been a penalty. In the event it scuppered Chiefs’ attacking flow and handed the initiative to Quins.
The subtlety and instant response from Haydn perhaps made it easier for the officials to ignore, but just 60 seconds later we were under our posts seven points adrift when perhaps we should have been three up.
Looking back on the game, I will make no bones about the fact that the best team edged the win on the day. A combination of sublime handling skills, uncharacteristic missed tackles and virtually every 50/50 call blown in Quins’ favour deservedly gave them the spoils.
Roundball scholars note “the away team at Old Trafford needs to win by two goals simply to get a draw! Such is the reputation and pressure that Man Utd impose to get the 50/50 calls.”
They have a point. A ship deviated by just one degree from the right course is miles away from port at journey’s end.
As I saw it, the decisions were certainly going against us with annoying regularity on Saturday. It was satisfying for the majority home crowd who would have no complaint, but it certainly made things a lot more difficult to deal with for our lads, especially with tens of thousands roaring on their team.
There was the very obvious inconsistency of two tip tackles to the less clear walking around the corner from the Quins scrum, reluctant to take on the rock that is Hoani Tui. We just didn’t get the rub of the green.
I’ve no issue with the officials on the day; they have a really tough job on these Big Game occasions with pressure of the home crowd. On the whole they do a great job but are only human and make mistakes like the rest of us. It just hurts that bit more when they are on the big stage and might have done better!
On the subject of rub of the green, it’s also wise to acknowledge the guys who aren’t getting the nod with selection.
At a time when the team really is mixing it at the top end of the game, a lot of credit is due to the men who turn up week in, week out and give their all to help those lucky enough to be pulling on the shirts on match days.
Training on Christmas Eve, Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve, giving your all yet knowing that you aren’t going to play on the big stage, is a tough call.
The strength of the team is the squad and the selfless approach of all. It’s a squad effort that has built a position from which we can still attack all three competitions. Fair play lads – it is further testament to the huge heart and unity that is Exeter Chiefs.
Having played two thirds of our Heineken and half the LV= and Premiership games we are indeed, still, able to attack each and every one of the competitions we entered.
Yes, the top spot in our Heineken pool is out of our hands, but two wins would see us make the knockout stages of the Amlin Challenge Cup, a competition that there would be a real chance of us getting after. Two victories could also see us get through in the LV= Cup. The fat lady is not yet singing and we’re still in the hunt.
Running sixth at the halfway stage of the Premiership programme positions us well for the second half of our season’s fixtures. With the Chiefs historically a team that finish strongly, and everything still very much up for grabs, the boys just need to kick on as our tradition and character suggest we will.
Another new year arrives and time for yours truly to submit a few seasonal wishes.
First up, I wish that Tom Johnson and Jack Nowell could be joined in the England elite player squads in January by a few more Chiefs.
The obvious suggestions are that Jack’s teammates from the World Cup-winning under-20s side Henry Slade and Sam Hill are in with a shout.
However, I’m going to throw my hat in the ring for Cullompton’s finest – Ben Moon. Having sat in the shadows of the warrior Brett Sturgess for a few seasons, this last month he has been in startling form and could yet be a bolter! Oh, and if Dave Ewers is not yet in the international hallway he is certainly knocking on the door.
My other new year wish is for captain ‘Mean Dean’ Mumm to score a dozen more tries only to finish behind yours truly in the bet of the century! Watch this space.
And finally to the mighty men of Exmouth. Following an 80-man Christmas social attended by most of first, second and third teams’ playing rosters, there is an air of optimism about the club. Having played every team in the league at this halfway point, the time has come for the young squad to stand up and be counted by putting in some big performances of which I know we are capable.
Come on Cockles, we’ve been threatening all year to take the step up to National League intensity, it’s now or never with a huge game to start the new year in Bournemouth this weekend.
Indeed, in the next month, Exmouth play all of the teams around us in the league table and with a bit of good fortune, the rub of the green and some real Devon steel, there is the very real prospect that the Cockles will get the positive results needed to secure survival.
I felt the spirit of the group during the Christmas social – 70 Father Christmases in full red kit, beards and bonnets roaming the Exmouth hostelries, sharing seasonal good cheer with all – certainly showed me the squad remains very much together, upbeat and united.
It’s a new year for us all. New challenges, new opportunities and a renewed spirit. I for one am looking forward to the games with a fresh ambitious outlook and optimism.
In Exeter and Exmouth these are indeed exciting times. A very happy, peaceful and prosperous new year to you all.
Until the next time, stay safe and enjoy your rugby.