What does Paul Gustard’s Harlequins departure mean?

Paul Gustard’s Harlequins departure

Harlequins fans might well be asking themselves where their club is going. Paul Gustard’s Harlequins departure, along with that of Chris Ashton has raised some questions.

Head of Rugby Paul Gustard departed after just over two and a half years at the club and will join Italian side Benetton Treviso as defence coach at the end of the season, while former England wing Chis Ashton leaves for Worcester Warriors six months after signing from Sale Sharks.

Their departures will raise questions about the club’s direction and what their recruitment policy will be in the coming years, especially as Gustard’s statement on LinkedIn suggests that not all has not been well in south-west London for some time.

Paul Gustard’s Harlequins departure

“I decided in December that I wanted a new experience and challenge and was pleased to have so many different opportunities domestically, internationally and abroad available.

“I wanted to join a group where there was a clear vision, deep level of trust and a dynamic environment which was driven towards high performance,” he wrote.

Ashton is currently four tries away from breaking Tom Varndell’s Premiership record of 92 tries, and it was known that after moving south from his native north-west in the summer of 2020 his family had struggled to adapt to life in London and so had moved up to Northampton where he played from 2007 to 2012.

If there was any hope that Ashton would use his unveiling as a Worcester player to clear up the mystery of what is going on at The Stoop, he only deepened it further.

“I’ve never not been able to connect. In 16 years of playing, I have always been able to,” he said. “He (Gustard) is a great guy. I have known him for a long time. He had a very different role there at Harlequins from before when I knew him at Saracens.

“He had a little bit of a different mindset on and with a playing style, when you lose games and you’re almost expecting to win these games, it can you knock you off task a little bit and the pressure of losing and trying to find a way to win in a young environment can be difficult.”

New direction

Gustard’s arrival in 2018 was a major coup for Harlequins. He was brought in from Eddie Jones’ England set-up where he was employed as the defence coach, one year out from the Japan 2019 Rugby World Cup.

He was supposed to represent a new direction for the club, which had lost their way following Director of Rugby Conor O’Shea’s departure in 2015 and replacement by club stalwart John Kingston.

The 44-year-old Gustard, a former Leicester Tigers and London Irish flanker, was supposed to instil an iron rod and the defensive solidity upon which Saracens had built their success.

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In just under seven years at Saracens his fabled “wolf-pack”, aggressive defensive system was the foundation for the London club’s rise to the top of the European game through the 2010s. By the time he accepted Jones’ offer Saracens had won the Premiership in 2011 and 2015, and then continued his system as they won the European Champions Cup in 2016, 2017 and 2019.

Quins, by contrast, have endured a mixed decade, albeit one that began with them enjoying their best period since the sport went professional in 1995.

For many years Quins were regarded as the flash, London fancy-dans, made up of city boys who enjoyed the social side of rugby more than the playing. When the sport went open, they were never among the leading clubs and even suffered relegation in 2005.

Glory years

That season in National 1 allowed the club to restructure under Chief Executive Mark Evans and blood the likes of Chris Robshaw, Ugo Monye, Danny Care and Mike Brown, who were the spine of the team that enjoyed unprecedented success.

O’Shea’s arrival in 2010 marked a new start for a club who were still reeling from the ‘Bloodgate Scandal’ that resulted in head coach Dean Richards and chairman Charles Jillings resigning, and wing Tom Williams being hit with a one-year ban.

 

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Quins won the 2011 European Challenge Cup, the 2012 Premiership and the 2013 LV=Cup, and while they have extended The Stoop to an impressive 15,000-capacity ground, regularly qualified for the European Champions Cup, and continued to produce a line of exciting players, they have always fallen short in the quest for honours since then.

Kingston, head coach under O’Shea, was the continuity candidate but when he underwhelmed Gustard was brought in to add some grunt to a team that wanted to play exciting rugby.

In scrum-half Care, fly-half Marcus Smith, and number 8 Alex Dombrant he inherited an exciting trio of players to build around. What he lacked were players like Bard Barritt and Jacques Burger, a pair who seemed to enjoy nothing more than hammering opposition players in the tackle and dragging their team through the furnace.

On the BBC’s Rugby Union Podcast, Care was quick to dispel rumours of player power being behind Gustard’s exit and hinted that the squad’s rotation has undermined efforts on the pitch.

“A lot of the senior players have been moved on or moved on and the last few years (so) it is Gussy’s squad,” Care said. “Gussy has brought in these players and in the last year or so the guys he has brought in have been asked to go, so it’s not been the same players all the time.

“The turnover of players we’ve had the last three years is at least double figures each year. That’s a massive transition. There’s been a few of us that have stayed, but a lot of players have left.”

Gustard worked with a coaching team of former New Zealand fly-half Nick Evans, Welsh prop Adam Jones and Irish hooker Jerry Flannery, and while they had enjoyed top-level careers, they were all in their first coaching jobs.

He also lost former rugby league great Sean Long and one-cap England international Alex Codling from his coaching team for unknown reasons, while the clubs’ highest profile player Kyle Sinckler, the first-choice England tighthead prop, left for Bristol.

It all meant that when the season got underway the club was in something of a flux. Results on the field didn’t help and so far, they have won two, drawn one and lost three in the Premiership, but lost both European Champions Cup fixtures.

“We were all so excited for him to get the job,” Care added. “Gussy hadn’t been a DoR before, he hadn’t been a head coach before and anyone coaching with him hadn’t done it before, so it was a new experience for everyone.

“Experience is the key. From what I’ve seen in my experience is the need for someone that has been there and done it or have those people around you to really help and take the pressure off you. Unfortunately for Gussy the main man has got the chop.”

Billy Millard the General Manager will take over temporarily from Gustard, and with relegation widely rumoured to be suspended due to the coronavirus, now is as good a time as any for the club to take stock and decide exactly what Chief Executive Laurie Dalrymple means by “a different direction.”

They will need to make sure that they get it right this time, because the danger is if they continue to ping from one extreme to another, then their excellent off-field work will continue to be undone by their inability to compete on the pitch.

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