Season Reflections from the Stoop

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The loss to Montpellier at the European Challenge Cup Final in Lyon last Friday night sums up Harlequins’ season pretty well. All the ingredients were there; the raw talent, the international honours and the legions of experience, but something was lacking. The performance? Lacklustre, tired and uncoordinated – a far cry from Quins at their best.

The previous week’s loss to Premiership finalists Exeter was also a sign of a team who obviously welcomed the end of the season. An embarrassing 24 – 62 defeat on home turf was characterised by a lack of defensive strength or attacking coordination, and relegated Harlequins to 7th place in the Premiership – three points shy of the top six and European qualification.

So, the 2012 Premiership Champions will have to settle for the Challenge Cup once again next season, and will seek to improve on a somewhat disappointing mid-table finish for the second year running. Now at the end of the season, with no silverware to show for manager Conor O’Shea‘s final stint at the Club, I take a look back on where it all went wrong for Quins.

A season of narrow losses

A lot of Quins’ season has been lost in the balance. With the final result against Exeter the biggest loss of the season, Quins have failed to pick up the points when crunch time came. As early as October, Quins fell short 22-19 after a dominant performance at Welford Road, whilst disappointing performances soon followed with a close loss to Exeter Chiefs at Sandy Park and a draw against Gloucester in the Big Game, which Quins had somewhat dominated. After an impressive win at home to Saracens in January, they then lost to Newcastle, who were at the time embroiled in a relegation battle, followed by the memorable loss against Northampton where the game was Quins’ to lose – Ben Botica‘s kick failing to find touch in the 80th minute gifted Saints the victory. A period of losses soon followed, with disappointing results at Gloucester, Wasps and the A.J. Bell, and Quins season soon toppled away from them. One has to think though – if just one of those tight results fell a different way, Quins would have found themselves in Europe’s top flight next season.

Injuries taking their toll

Quins have also been riddled with injuries all year, with key players missing for significant parts of the season – a problem especially when they lost a large part of their squad on international duties. With Nick Evans out for ten weeks with a broken leg, Tim Visser missing parts of the season with a selection of injuries, and emergency signings Sam Egerton and Beau Robinson necessary to bolster the squad in early 2016, Quins have struggled to field a full strength lineup. Sure, it’s given players who may usually have been more familiar with the bench time on the pitch, and the likes of Ben Botica have stepped up to the mark and put in impressive shifts, but one has to wonder what Quins could have done had they a full strength squad all season. In the case of injuries, the lack of strength in depth shows, especially in comparison to teams like Saracens who can bring the likes of Neil de Kock, Charlie Hodgson and Marcelo Bosch off the bench. New signings have definitely bolstered the squad – the addition of Tim Visser and Jamie Roberts have been invaluable to the Quins attack, whilst James Horwill has brought aggression and experience to the second row, but Quins lack a large enough squad to compete when injuries become a concern.

Uncertainty of Management Reshuffle

With Conor O’Shea announcing his departure from the Club back in February after six years in the job – he will now take over the national Italian coaching role – Quins will welcome the 2016-17 season with a new coaching lineup. John Kingston, the current head coach, will replace O’Shea as director of rugby, with the new appointments coming from within as Mark Mapletoft is also promoted from his current role as backs coach. Graeme Rowntree also joins the coaching lineup as forwards coach, after eight years with the England national team, whilst Quins legend Nick Easter will begin his transition from player to coach in a defensive role.

However, whilst O’Shea’s announcement came in early February, the new appointment was not officially revealed until late April. There was therefore a substantial period of uncertainty at the Club, and this showed in the results. With a run of six losses in eight games in February and March, Quins saw themselves topple down the Premiership Table, and struggled to perform under constant scrutiny in the press. And after the announcement? The worry that John Kingston, with no high level experience to his name, will fail to draw the big name signings that have bolstered the Quins squad in recent years. Take for example, Danny Cipriani, who was rumoured to be coming to Quins, before re-signing for his native Wasps after news of O’Shea’s departure surfaced. Such concerns could not have helped Quins, especially at a time when they were already struggling.

So what’s the story for next season?

Despite the obvious coaching shakeup, on the other hand, Quins will retain the best part of their current playing squad, with the biggest name to leave being fly-half Ben Botica, who moves to France to replace Francois Trinh-Duc at Montpellier. A controversial name at the Stoop – not least for the mistake which arguably lost Quins their home fixture to Northampton in the Premiership back in February – but he has been essential this season with first choice fly half Nick Evans missing a number of games in early 2016 with a broken leg. Since then, his performance from the tee has been extremely solid, and he’s racked up 93 appearances and 544 points for the club.

Alongisde Botica, Tito Tebaldi will return to his native Italy after an error prone run out in the Premiership when captain Danny Care was on England duty and Karl Dickson was recovering from a broken hand. Injury signings Sam Egerton and Beau Robinson will also be leaving the club, alongside academy members Luke White and Kieran Treadwell. Aside from that however, Quins’ England internationals have all signed new contracts, with Chris Robshaw, Mike Brown, Danny Care, Jack Clifford, Marland Yarde and Joe Marler all extending their stay at the club. Fellow internationals Adam Jones and Nick Evans have equally re-signed, with home grown talents George Lowe and Harry Sloan also renewing alongside Dave Ward and Rob Buchanan.

Squad shakeups will therefore be minimal as Quins will focus instead on the impact of their new coaching lineup. Under new leadership, 2016-17 will be a time to rebuild, improve and rediscover their former best.

 

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