For your great pleasure and insight (and possible amusement), in between snowboard runs, Austrian beer and Christmas, Take The Three has remarkably (albeit slightly sadly) found time to look ahead to this weekend’s rugby.
Now a must in the festive rugby calendar, the Big Game is now in its sixth edition. The annual fixture sees Harlequins admirably fill Twickenham as they expand the horizons of the Premiership by taking a regular league game to the masses.
Believe it or not, amid dodgems, face-painting, light shows and performances by the Military Wives and Sam Bailey, who apparently won something called X-Factor – which TTT is proud to not give even the remotest shit about – there will even be some rugby played. Kicking off at 4pm on Saturday, in Big Game 6, Quins will host west-country outfit Exeter.
Quins had a slow start to the season but the 2012 Champions are returning to form after dispatching Gloucester and Newcastle in the league and convincing home and away wins over a star-studded, Lions-clad Racing Metro side in the Heineken Cup.
DOR Conor O’Shea has picked a full strength side with Danny Care returning from injury to feature alongside regular half-back partner Nick Evans. The inclusion of young Charlie Matthews, an England U18 & U20 representative, alongside George Robson in the engine room has meant Nick Easter can slot back into his favoured no.8 position, allowing him to produce more of his barnstorming, metre-gaining ball-carries.
The cohesion of that 8, 9, 10 fulcrum with Care and Evans is essential to the Quins go-forward. Centre Tom Casson also returns from injury and back-three Sam Smith, Charlie Walker and Mike Brown are a potent attacking weapon with the ball in space. Incidentally Matthews keeps ex England and Toulon lock Nick Kennedy resigned to the bench – not bad for a 22year-old.
Care, Evans, Robson, Easter, Brown and skipper Chris Robshaw continue their association with the Big Game, all making their sixth appearance in the fixture.
Exeter won the sides’ first encounter this season, a LV= Cup 19-5 triumph at Sandy Park, but holders Quins fielded a below-strength side, Luke Wallace taking over the captaincy duties and Ben Botica subbing for Nick Evans. Exeter’s fly-half Ceri Sweeney kept his side’s scoreline ticking over with 14 of the points.
Exeter too have their ups and downs this season, but come off a win against the Newcastle Falcons, which ended a five-game losing streak and will give them confidence as they head to London.
England international Tom Johnson comes into the back row and he and flanker partner Ben White will face a hard-fought breakdown battle with Wallace and Robshaw.
It would be sacrilegious to not also mention here Exeter’s own attacking threat in the form of Jack Nowell, Tom James and Luke Arscott. Nowell will surely be on Stuart Lancaster’s radar by now, James has ten caps (and two tries) for Wales and Arscott is an extremely good reader of the game.
The sides have ridiculously similar league figures. Quins, currently occupying the last play-off position, lead Exeter by a solitary point, both having won six and lost four and each with 17 tries for and two losing bonus points. Statistics like those and the nature of having some stand-out performers in similar positions suggest a very tight game indeed. Both sides are trying to adopt a running style of play that also brings forwards into key positions, such as Chris Robshaw often standing at first receiver.
Quins, though, and the Quins fans, love this fixture and love Twickenham, having won their last four games at the ground and it should be that edge that brings them through – narrowly. Quins by 3.