Forgive me, please, if this column is slightly more self-indulgent than usual.
But, having attended the Gallagher Premiership rugby final last weekend, it brought home to me – as if I needed reminding – the importance of sport. Which, of course, is the reason Sportside exists in the first place.
First, a bit of background. Last Saturday’s final was a match-up between Exeter Chiefs and Harlequins. Exeter were clear favourites, the 2020 Premiership and European champions whose bruising brilliance has seen them sit at the top of the tree in English rugby over the past five years.
Harlequins, therefore, were clear underdogs. A team that were sitting one place off the bottom of the league at the end of last year, sacked their coach in December with the club and team in disarray and lacking direction. Going into 2021, supporters would have accepted a mid-table finish with a promise to do better next season.
But the players had other ideas.
In the absence of a manager (or director of rugby as they are known) but still with a world-class team of coaches in place, a senior group of players set about devising a way forward, a way to get the club back on its feet and competitive again.
The key ethos behind the ensuing revival appeared to be a simple one: play the game with a smile on your face. As the clubs started winning league matches playing fast, attractive rugby, the message from players and coaches alike in all the post-match interviews was the same: we’ve learned how to enjoy our rugby again.
As a supporter – and former employee at the club – it was a joy to watch. But still, we thought, a top 4 finish and qualification for the end of season play-offs was beyond them.
But the revival continued, Quins playing fast and loose rugby, with moments of brilliance interspersed with some fairly chaotic defending it has to be said. The try count in matches went through the roof but the stay-at-home fans (we were still in full lockdown) were starting to believe again – and let their voices be heard on social media.
Sure enough, a strong finish to the season saw them finish fourth in the league and, incredibly, a place in the play-offs was achieved. Next up was an away day in Bristol in the semis, the team that finished top of the league and frankly in unstoppable form. Quins went into the game as serious underdogs again.
With just over 20 minutes gone in the match, the game seemed to be up too – the dream appeared to be over. Bristol had raced into a deserved 28-0 lead and were running a brave Quins team ragged.
Cue miracle number one.
A try just before half-time gave them something to cling onto and out they came for the second half revitalised and willing to give everything for the cause – even if it was a lost one. And playing their trademark game, full of adventure, passion and daring, they were suddenly back in it – levelling the scores at 31-31 at full-time. A frantic extra-time followed, from which Quins emerged triumphant and in the final. It was surely one of the greatest game’s in the club’s history, and not to be repeated. Certainly not against the mighty Exeter a week later at Twickenham.
But the unthinkable happened and, to cut a long story short (I could detail every pass, tackle, try and kick in the game even now!) Harlequins triumphed in the most dramatic of circumstances, winning 40-38 in the highest-scoring final the Premiership has ever seen. The zeroes had turned themselves into heroes again (it was their first Premiership victory since 2012) and all the while by playing the game with smiles on their faces.
Now it is not just this incredible fairy-tale that tells you why sport is so important, as amazing as it was for the players and coaching staff to achieve what they did. No, it was witnessing first hand what it meant to all those in and around the club, and the knock-on effect it can have on community rugby, and community sport, in the area.
Firstly, the supporters. As a season ticket holder I was lucky enough to have secured a ticket for the game, surrounded by around 5,000 other Quins supporters, all of whom seemed to share my feelings of dread, joy and then absolute wonder as the final unfolded the way it did. These supporters invest so much in their club – both financially and emotionally. The club has always been brilliant at recognising this but, when a team doesn’t perform the way it wants to, it can make for a difficult relationship between supporter and club.
Harlequins’ supporters have been on as ludicrous a journey as the players and to see them rewarded with the most thrilling win a Premiership final has ever seen was a joy to behold.
Next up, the incredible team behind the team. Having worked at the club as their communications manager (albeit only for a year!) I grew to appreciate just how many people put in so many hours to make the club function. From the playing staff and all their coaches, S&C team, operations manager, video analysts to the chief executive, the senior management team, marketing and comms, sponsorship, hospitality, catering, event management, retail…the list goes on and on. And to a man and woman, everyone doing their job with a complete lack of ego and one sole focus: making Harlequins as successful as possible, but only by doing things the right way, the Harlequins way. The Quins’ motto is Nunquam Dormio – which translates as I never sleep and for so many of the hard-working team behind the scenes at The Stoop, this seemed to be taken literally.
This attitude, spirit and bloody hard work had already led to Harlequins Women winning the Allianz Premier 15s a few weeks earlier – yet another area where the club has invested and excelled.
And then there is the Harlequins Foundation – arguably the most important department of the lot. This is the department that is all about reaching out to the community – getting kids playing the game, including people of all ages, gender, background and showing just how rugby can be a force for good.Their work is tireless and the department, like every other at Harlequins, is full of excellent people doing excellent jobs.
And of course, the really wonderful thing is that Harlequins is not unique. This is going on at rugby clubs – and all sports clubs – up and down the country. From Premiership champions to grassroots Under 7s.
Because, while we know that sport doesn’t matter at all – it really is never a matter of life and death – it does of course matter deeply too. It gives people joy, it gives people hope and it really can make for happier lives. By connecting with your community and playing your sport, you can find a new way of life, or even a new lease of life.