Saturday’s matchup at the Stoop was always going to be exciting. Northampton, who had failed to record a win in the Aviva Premiership since New Year’s Day, travelled to Twickenham to take on Premiership rivals Harlequins – a club that had yet to lose at home in any competition this season. With both sides missing a number of key players on international duty, home grown youngsters were keen to prove themselves, whilst those who missed out on Six Nations honours were eager to assert their claim to the shirt. All the seeds were sown for a thrilling encounter.
And it did not disappoint. A fantastic carry from youngster Kyle Sinckler set up Quins’ first score, when lock George Merrick crossed to earn his first points of the season. Winger Ross Chisholm, too, looked impressive, scoring what will surely be considered for Premiership Try of the Season after a phenomenal series of offloading from the home side. But, in opposing colours, Luther Burrell – a questionable exclusion from both Lancaster’s World Cup Squad last year, and now Jones’ Six Nations squad – was on fire, setting up a try for Christian Day, and scoring another himself to give Saint’s a 17 – 13 lead at Half Time. With the wind howling around the Stoop, the second half would prove to be low scoring, and after both teams saw yellow – Scrum Half Tito Tebaldi for Quins just before the half time whistle, and flanker Tom Wood for the Saints with thirteen minutes to go – only three points separated the teams by the 80 minute mark. At 23 – 20, tension snaked its way around the ground. Quins, leading, and in possession; Saints with the territory. A defensive scrum on the 5 metre line. The clock now dead.
And then, in front of 14,800 people, fly half Ben Botica did this:
Tebaldi fed, the ball was hooked successfully, and Easter cleared. With the four points in touching distance, Swiel fed back to Botica to clear the lines, but he failed to put the ball into touch. Botica’s blunder would prove to be a basic, but fatal error. Seconds later, Foden had reclaimed the ball and sent Saints back on the attack. Less than a minute after that, he was touching the ball down under the posts, in an 81st minute seven pointer that snatched the win from Quins’ grasp and left the final score at 27 – 23 in favour of the travelling side.
Fans, players, coaches alike were left baffled by the error. “What’s the expression? It’s never over until the final whistle and I guess that was never more true than today”, Northampton’s Jim Mallinder said to Premiership Rugby after the game. Whilst Harlequins Director of Rugby, Conor O’Shea, was still in disbelief during his post-match interview: “I cannot describe or put into words how I feel right now, I’ve never seen anything like it on a rugby field” he said. “Well that was nothing short of unbelievable and unforgivable. You just had to walk over the dead ball line, kick it over, we had the ball in our hands, it’s just a shame… I don’t think anyone who hasn’t been here and witnessed that will believe what happened. We are just going to have to over the next 48 hours try and park it but it’s going to take time”. Online, too, Botica instantly received a flurry of abuse, with individuals taking to social media to criticise the play, whilst on the Quins’ fan forum www.comeallwithin.co.uk, a thread entitled “Brainless Botica Balls it up” was soon created, which to date has sixty replies.
So what does this mean for Quins and the rest of their season? Saturday marks the first time the London based Club have suffered back to back defeats this Premiership season, following last weekend’s dismal showing at Newcastle. They now sit at fourth in the Aviva table – twelve points off Saracens who sit at the top – and the chasing pack, led by Wasps, are getting ever closer and threatening that all important play off place. With tough games to come away to Gloucester, Wasps and Sale, and at home to Leicester and Bath, Quins’ top four place looks less certain each week. It was, without doubt, a better performance than they put in at Kingston Park, and they can build upon the fluid, exciting game which they showed at times on Saturday. But, points don’t come easily in a Premiership as competitive as ours, and those three lost points could really cost them come the end of the season. And, with table toppers Saracens away, and second placed Exeter to play at home in the last three weeks of their season, it looks like Conor O’Shea’s last season in charge at the club will come right down to the line.
As for Botica, he has to put this behind him and move on. He’ll undoubtably be having harsh words with the coaching team over his mistake, but with seven Quins starters out on international duty, and a number more of their squad out injured, his experience is needed more than ever over the next couple of weeks. He will have to play a role in the side which will take Quins through the Six Nations campaign, and he can’t let this upset affect his play in the coming fixtures. He’ll surely be under constant scrutiny over his next performances, and he has a lot to prove to his Quins’ fans, so the pressure will be on, and more so than ever before. The next few weeks will be make or break for his rugby playing future.
But, at the end of the day, we all make mistakes. Owen Farrell botched this shocker in Saracens’ Champions’ Cup fixture against Toulouse, and yet he still holds his place in the England team. Just this weekend, veteran Italian captain and back row Sergio Parisse took this strange decision to take Italy’s winning drop goal attempt himself, yet the clumsy stroke will be forgotten amongst his 115 caps. And, in the words of DOK, a regular on the aforementioned fan forum “In my pantheon of sins, it’s not a bad as Hartley gouging someone, and yet we all seem to have gotten over that”.