On the 9th January, Harlequins stunned fans when they edged out previously undefeated Saracens in a thrilling encounter at the Stoop, which saw the home team clutch a 29-23 victory and catapulted them into the Aviva Premiership top Four. Meanwhile, in the Challenge Cup, with four wins from four, Quins topped their pool and looked set on easy qualification. And the attitude at the Stoop was thriving – key players had all re-signed; results were going their way. Things were looking good for the London based club.
Fast forward three weeks, and things couldn’t look more different. Their Director of Rugby of 6 years, Conor O’Shea – the man who led them to Premiership glory for the first time in 2012 – announced in mid January that he would be leaving the club at the end of the season; to take on an international role at Italy, rumours say. Combine this with losing a handful of players to injury and international duty and since then Quins have recorded two embarrassing losses. Last weekend, Quins were completely overpowered away to Montpellier, losing the match 42-9; practically the inverted scoreline of the reverse fixture. And this Sunday, they were only the second team to lose to bottom-of-the-table Newcastle Falcons, who defeated them 26-19 in a thriller at Kingston Park.
With difficult fixtures against Saints, Gloucester, Tigers and Wasps to come in the next couple of weeks – where Quins will have to take away points in order to be in contention for a Top 4 Playoff spot by the end of the season – I take a look at the predicted cost of International Honours for the club, and whether the boys in quartered shirts possess the strength in depth needed to contend over the next couple of weeks.
Losing a captain is always going to affect a team, especially a captain with 53 international caps that is just one start away from playing his 200th Quins game. His pace, innovative play and calm head are definitely missed by Quins – on Sunday Buchanan tried to mirror the famed training ground move which sees Care take a short ball from the lineout and dart over the line, although to no avail without the 57 time try scorer on the receiving end.
Quins have enough leaders on the field – England wonder kid Jack Clifford was called up to that honour last week, whilst veteran fly half Nick Evans used every minute of his 186 Harlequins appearances to lead from the front against Falcons. Worthy replacements, no doubt, and when there’s an ex-club captain in the ranks if Joe Marler takes to the field, and an ex-England captain as in Montpellier where Chris Robshaw also featured in the back row, the boys are not lacking in leadership.
Where they do lack however, is strength in depth in the scrum half role. With Care’s usual replacement, 33 year old Karl Dickson, currently out with a hand injury for the foreseeable future, Quins are currently relying on 28 year old Italian Tito Tebaldi for the number 9 shirt. Although he has twenty national caps to his name, he lacks game time in the Premiership, having made only a handful of appearances since he joined the club in 2014. And, it’s no secret that Dickson is somewhat of a club favourite, with O’Shea once referring to him as “among the best five scrum halves in the country” in a press conference following his England call up. Sunday’s game proved this weakness – Tebaldi was poor, the ball was kicked away pointlessly far too often, and his decision making was consistently wrong as Quins sought the bonus point fourth try as the game closed out.
With replacement Full Back Ollie Lindsay-Hague out injured until mid February, it’s been former academy member Ross Chisholm shining from the back for Quins, on return from a long term injury. With five tries to his name in nine appearances since his recent return to the squad, including four in three weeks during December, Chisholm is certainly proving himself. He was awarded DHL Player of the Month for December, beating international teammates Tim Visser and Jack Clifford to the accolade, and is quickly cementing himself as a firm favourite amongst the home crowd at the Stoop. Having said that, his performance on Sunday was poor, and his decision making was questionable, especially as the errors crept into Quins’ game. Make no mistake, as good as Chisholm has been, he’s no replacement for a world class full back who must certainly be one of the first names on Eddie Jones’ team sheet. Brown’s reputation exists for a reason, and losing a player of such high calibre will certainly affect the team.
CHRIS ROBSHAW AND JACK CLIFFORD
Quins lose two of their starting back row with England call ups: former international captain Chris Robshaw and new wonder-kid Jack Clifford. The pair will certainly be missed for their leadership – both are used to wearing the captain’s armband since Clifford too has captained England, albeit at a younger level – although their presence in the back row is probably better covered than any other position within the Quins pack. At number 8, Quins can field veteran Nick Easter, who can still carry out a one handed offload like no other, even at the age of 37, whilst Mat Luamanu – the Kiwi born powerhouse – has just returned from injury and will look to further his five appearances in his debut season with the club. With two strong contenders for the shirt, the fact that third choice Netani Talei is out for the remainder of the season with a knee injury shouldn’t be too big a problem. That being said, in December it was announced that former Australian international Beau Robinson would be brought in as emergency cover for the Fijian, and although he is yet to make an appearance, he is certain to make an impact when he brings his extensive Super Rugby experience to the Quins franchise.
In the flanker position, Luke Wallace is a cemented name on the team sheet. He’s caught eyes on the international scene for his outstanding work at the breakdown and explosive ball carrying, whilst former Quins and Harlequins legend Will Greenwood told Sky Sports back in December that he sees the 25 year old “as the outstanding No 7 in the country”. Although his performance on Sunday was nowhere near his best – where he really shines is alongside experience such as Easter in the back row – Quins will hope he dominates the breakdown over the next couple of weeks, a feat of which he is definitely capable. Also shining in the back row is hooker Dave Ward, whose recent foray down the numbers has seen a multitude of line breaks, and quite simply outstanding play in the loose. On Sunday, his first half break set up the Charlie Walker try which took Quins into the interval only 3 points down, whilst he also went over himself in the second half in a Man of the Match worthy performance.
Marler, the former Quins Academy boy who captained the 2014-15 season, and now has nearly 40 England caps to his name, is definitely missed at the Stoop – and not just because the front row lacks a distinctive hairstyle when he’s on England duty. Indeed, International class and experience is always going to be important in a Premiership which also contains the likes of South African Schalk Brits and former Lion Tom Youngs. That being said, Harlequins’ front row effort has certainly been bolstered this season with the addition of former Welsh international Adam Jones. Although he is admittedly past his former best, his experience of both 95 international caps and Lions success cannot be overlooked. Where Jones will also be invaluable, however, is in the training of the Quins youth. Fellow tighthead’s Kyle Sinckler and Will Collier will both benefit from the coaching of their new teammate, and Jones can hope to be influential in the success of Collier’s return from long term injury, whilst Sinckler already boasts two tries this season and 65 appearances to date. With Matt Shields, uncapped Owen Evans and workhorse Mark Lambert also at O’Shea’s disposal, Marler will undoubtedly be missed, but Quins are in the best position to cope with his loss as they have been in recent seasons.
Newcomer Visser was a force to be reckoned with for the London based club in the early season, scoring six tries in eight appearances, including a hat trick against London Irish, which earned him the DHL Player of the Month award for November. He was injured in the December game against Gloucester where he tore his hamstring, although his recovery is reportedly going well, and he is expected to return in early February. His return, however, will most likely be in a blue shirt, as he has been called up to the Scotland squad for the Six Nations, to add to his 23 international caps.
That being considered, Yarde’s release from the England squad will be light relief for O’Shea and his team, with an injury also to fellow winger Ollie Lindsay-Hague meaning that Quins’ strength in depth will be tested on the wing. Charlie Walker certainly is a strong contender for the starting shirt, and will look to use the game time he will receive whilst his colleagues are on international duty to show his class and flair. Despite Sunday’s loss to Falcons being only his third game this season in Quins colours, he scored twice in the fixture, converting Dave Ward’s sterling first half break for his first, and beating opposing number Simon Hammersley to earn his brace – enough to win himself a mention in the Guardian’s Team of the Week. This brings him to ten tries in ten appearances this season, and although his defence can let him down, as was shown on Sunday, he’s a promising contender to fill Visser’s shirt whilst he takes international duty. Aside from Walker, however, Quins will struggle if Yarde is recalled to Jones’ England squad, and it may lead to players starting out of position – a stark contrast to last year when they still had both Ugo Monye and Tom Williams at their disposal.
As influential as having a sixty two time Welsh centre is, Roberts’ loss can’t strike Quins that hard. They dealt without him for the first half of the season, as he geared up to earn his first Blue playing for Cambridge in the Varsity match, and he was only introduced into the Quins training setup on the 14th December. Although he boasts five appearances since then, including a try during his December debut, Quins hold enough other centres with plenty of game time to see them through the season. They don’t bring the 110kg of physicality that has earnt Roberts his reputation, but George Lowe has 133 appearances to his name and knows how to handle the pressure of the Premiership. Alongside him, Matt Hopper can claim 70 points in in 94 appearances for Quins, whilst young Harry Sloan is a promising new talent, with the 21 year old double World Cup winner getting the nod ten times already this season. Another option is twice capped Samoan Winston Stanley, who was formerly shortlisted for New Zealand young player of the year, and looks to be settling into Quins, with three appearances to his name to date.