‘There is a lot at stake’ – dissecting the importance of the Barbarians visit to Harlequins

Mike Brown scored a try for the Barbarians against the club he represented for 16 years
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As Harlequins ran in 11 tries against the Barbarians beneath Thursday night lights, the spectacle of the occasion and sheer delight of a 10,000 strong crowd in West London almost makes you forget exactly why the fixture was taking place in the first place.

It has come around almost entirely as two of the Gallagher Premiership’s clubs went into administration, with both Wasps and Worcester Warriors ceasing to operate as entities, whilst also being automatically relegated to the Championship.

Across the board there was concern. Questions raised have differed from wondering how these two fantastic clubs were able to get into this position? Does this mean that other clubs are in danger? Does professional rugby union in this country have a long-term future.

These concerns even led to the Rugby Football Union and Premiership Rugby being hauled in front of MPs, the plight of the professional game coming to the fore and the very foundations which the game is built on, queried like never before.

For the club’s left behind, they have certainly been asking these questions too. Losing two home games as a result of the loss of Wasps and Worcester, the powers that be across the Premiership were on the hunt for wars to make up lost revenue and the Barbarians offered an intriguing prospect.

Harlequins along with Bath and Northampton Saints were able to secure a fixture with the tourists, while Leicester Tigers opted to play an Italy A side and Saracens have a fixture with Tel Aviv Heat on the horizon.

Entering the Twickenham Stoop and you can see this is a club growing at an exponential rate. Their Premiership win in 2021 in many ways launched this but having not failed to sell-out a home fixture at their 14,800 capacity home for over 18 months and their recent investment in the redevelopment of the north stand to enhance the fan experience.

“The fans have ultimately committed to a membership of this club,” Laurie Darlymple, Harlequins CEO, told TRU. “We want to feel like we are giving them some value for that investment.

“On many fronts I feel we do that through the quality of the rugby we are putting on the pitch at the moment. We have to mitigate the losses that we are going to be experiencing through the loss of the two games.

“But what we’ve invested in the north end of the ground is about the supporter experience in the ground being the best it can be. We’ve been sold out now for a year and a half, and if we don’t make that investment into the rest of the product as well as what we do on the pitch, then arguably the supporter experience is going to be compromised.

“That’s kind of separate in some ways, that’s about the general fan experience, but doing matches like tonight means that we can continue to ensure that starts to pay back, because it is not an insignificant investment.

“But that’s about investing in the product on a broader scale than necessarily getting the money back from an event like tonight.”

On Thursday night, there was a plenty of star power to attract spectators to TW2. First and foremost was Mike Brown, a 16-year veteran in a Harlequins jersey and has been without a club since his departure in the summer returned to the venue that has a bar named after him and even bagged one of the Barbarians’ four tries.

The architect of that score was All Blacks fly-half Damian McKenzie, who last Sunday lined up for the All Blacks XV against the Barbarians at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. With the Premiership having rearranged fixtures in the New Year, whether or not there is scope to host another game like this is uncertain.

Northampton Saints predicted that they would lose somewhere within the region of £350,000 to £400,000 with their lost home games and we saw at the start of the Premiership season how the postponement of the Bristol Bears-Bath fixture by less than 24 hours following the passing of Queen Elizabeth II saw the team lose somewhere in the region of £200,000.

Perhaps more than before, those figures seem more significant than before. In a London market, for Harlequins those numbers are no doubt notable too.

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“These two games [Wasps and Worcester] in terms of profit for us individually, it could be pushing at near half a million pounds of profit,” Darlymple said. “Clearly, there is a desire for us to de-risk that as much as we possibly can.

“I wouldn’t say that’s us just saying ‘we’ll throw any old game out’, because there has to be meaning to it. Whilst there is no competitive outcome necessarily to tonight other than bragging rights, and obviously building up to next week. This feels like a meaningful fixture.

“There is a lot at stake. There is a lot of quality on the pitch. We have to put out as strong a side we physically could do, but if we didn’t do this match and we potentially don’t get another match out which we think is meaningful or we continue to have the fans support what we are trying to do, whether that be financially or emotionally or physically, the risk to the club is significant.”

An added wrinkle to the entire game was the players from Worcester Warriors and Wasps that donned black and white hooped jerseys in late autumn. Murray McCallum, Gareth Simpson and Graham Kitchener were among the Warriors contingent, while Wasps were ably represented by John Ryan, Kiran McDonald, Elliott Stooke, Francois Hougaard and Gabriel Oghre.

Lining up against some of his former teammates was Josh Bassett. Very much the ultimate club man while representing Wasps, the wing scored two tries on Thursday evening for Harlequins and heaped the praise on his former teammates.

“You look back at the team in the buildup, you have for a lot of Wasps boys in there, Worcester lads, you look at them and they deserve this opportunity and they come out here, done themselves proud and done Wasps proud as well,” Bassett told TRU.

“It has been a challenging year for everyone involved at Wasps, and for them to get the opportunity to put on a prestigious jersey, the first time that Harlequins have ever faced the BaaBaas, what an occasion.

“They deserve it, they deserve it for everyone that has been involved with Wasps. I think they put in a great shift today.”

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Slowly but surely, the players and staff released from their contracts when administration hit have been finding new clubs. This week Dan Robson has confirmed a move to France with Section Paloise, while Jacob Umaga has signed a deal with Benetton in the United Rugby Championship.

Through being able to pull on a Barbarians jersey over the course of the next 10 days or so, you have to hope that more will find themselves playing opportunities. 

As ever with the Barbarians, the greater thought of ‘the game’ becomes prominent, those rugby values which in some way reshaping, rear their head to drive home exactly why this sport gets its hooks into you.

“People talk about how special the BaaBaas jersey is, and is there a place for these fixtures this year,” Bassett said. “I think absolutely there is.

“The BaaBaas is so special and to get this opportunity; look at the crowd that has turned out, everyone loves the BaaBaas, what they are about, everything and I think there is a place and I think there is an opportunity for this.

“I think it is prestigious, how lucky it is for them lads to get out and put that jersey on. I think they did themselves proud. I think they did the BaaBaas proud, they did their clubs proud, and I think it is such a great occasion.

“To pretty much sell-out the Stoop, look at all the fans here now after the game that have enjoyed themselves on a Thursday night. It is about rugby, it is about enjoying rugby and that’s what has happened tonight.”