First home game of the new rugby Premier League season last night. A tough one against Saracens, winners of the league last year in regular time, although they lost in the play-off final to Northampton. Got there 15 minutes into the game as a result of work problems, but it was only 3-0 at that point and Quins seemed to be doing well. But it all went badly wrong…
Quins’ strategy is to build a team that can compete at the top largely through the development of home-grown academy players. This is laudable. At the moment the first pick team has 14 Englishmen plus kiwi Nick Evans at fly half. Many of the team are either in the England squad, or are on the edges of it. The playing philosophy is attacking and entertaining. Everything that is good about rugby. It’s why I enjoy being a season ticket holder at the club.
It comes with a risk, though. Some of the other big clubs have bought heavily. Getting in seasoned internationals, players with experience and physical presence. Saracens, Northampton, Leicester, were dominant last season and every pundit at the beginning of this season predicted one of them to win the competition this season. The consensus was that Quins would be battling with Bath again for the fourth place.
It’s pretty hard to argue with that analysis, although I held out hope that Quins’ youngsters would reach the point where they could battle with the best, because they were the best.
Last night’s result damaged that hope, although it will be important not to overreact. The signs were there in the first match of the season, against London Irish, at the Twickenham double header. I just watched that one on TV. Quins won 20-15, but having cruised to a 20-6 lead in the first half, ill-discipline in the second half led to loads of penalties and two yellow cards against them. They defended well in adversity, but were lucky that Irish lacked the killer touch.
Against Sarries, it was again ill-discipline and basic errors that led to their downfall. Sarries’ first try came from a charge down of a Nick Evans kick and that set the scene for the rest of the game. So much poor decision-making: a few kickable penalties, which might have put points on the board, were declined in favour of kicks to touch in search of a try early on in the game, when there was time to claw their way back. Moves broke down, the ball lost in crucial positions, which allowed Sarries to break forward and win penalties, if not tries. And eventually morale sagged, the errors multiplied, the substitutions disrupted the team further and it all fell apart.
There was a leadership problem too. Chris Robshaw has relinquished the captaincy, presumably because of the demands he will have in World Cup year, as England captain. That’s a questionable decision – even more questionable is the decision to make Joe Marler captain. Great man though he is, he’s a prop, always in the thick of the fighting, always on the edge of trouble. And likely to be substituted after sixty minutes or so. I’m sure he’s hugely respected by his teammates, but he just doesn’t seem the right man to provide clear-headed leadership on the pitch. What has been noticeable in the first two matches is that Robshaw is still half doing the job. But only half. So the clarity of leadership is missing. Uncertainty increases. And a team like Saracens exploits that brutally.
We have to hope the performance against Saracens is a one-off. It will surely lead to some serious reflection in the Harlequins camp, some challenges and a determination to put things right. The spirit of recent years can’t have dissipated, so hopefully they will rally and put in a great performance against Wasps this coming Saturday.
But this is the moment for the experienced players – Robshaw, Care, Easter, Brown, Evans, Robson – to take responsibility and show the youngsters the way forward. Even if Marler stays captain, which I assume he will.
Come on you Quins!