Harlequins were humiliated at home on Friday night, I was at the game and I could not blame a single fan that left early. There were no boo’s or jeers at the end of the game just a wholehearted feeling of disgust, embarrassment and humiliation around the Stoop. Harlequins supporters had a tough viewing last week, scraping past a very average London Irish team, that should have been the warning shot for the Harlequins staff and players, the barrage of firepower was coming from Saracens straight from kick off.
I have often blasted Saracens with criticism and turned my nose up at their tactics and player recruitment policies over recent seasons, often with a hint of jealousy. When Harlequins won the league back in 2012 I was also present at Twickenham, I was excited about Quins free-flowing offloading game and I saw a coaching set-up that trusted youth to go out, perform and more importantly win. Many believed this would be a new dawn in the Premiership where academy systems would receive the full support of the clubs and become a regular pathway into the first team. The recent success of the England Under 20’s shows us all that the academies in this country are in good health and doing a fantastic job. However, on that day back in May 2012 when all Harlequins fans lauded the production line of talent coming out of the west London club, a blind eye was shown to the investment that had been made in previous seasons.
From the starting XV that played that day the majority of them had come through the championship together and were a core group of English qualified players, however there was heavy investment made to get that team together. Dean Richards was blasted for recruiting some obscure signings upon his return to the Premiership, the likes of Stuart Abott, Ollie Smith and Hal Luscombe to name just three, however the experience of these internationally qualified players would have been invaluable on young guys coming through such as Mike Brown and Jordan Turner-Hall. Although these signings didn’t perform on the pitch the club was not relegated and began to thrive. Youngsters need older heads to guide them through the dark days, such as Friday night. The backline I am not so worried about however in the forward pack there is a gaping hole of inexperience. The fact Ollie Kohn and James Johnston were not replaced adequately is no secret and this problem is often grumbled in crowds at Quins game. Paul Doran-Jones and Nick Kennedy did not perform well enough and there is also a clear lack of size between those departing and those coming in. The cornerstone of the Harlequins pack was removed and a talented backline just can’t function behind a retreating scrum.
Of the starting XV from the 2012 Premiership final, seven of those players were imports from other teams; Nick Evans, Danny Care, Joe Gray, James Johnston, Ollie Kohn, Maurie Fa’asavalu and Nick Easter. The die-hard fans of the club may argue that Easter, Care and Gray were all brought in young and given their first real Premiership game-time with the club, what can’t be argued is that Richards obviously saw the need to strengthen his team in certain areas. Connor O’Shea was the man in charge when Harlequins won the Premiership, but he did inherit a talented playing roster and Richard’s coaching staff, the platform was there for him to do well. Since his takeover he has promoted from within and been reluctant to sign top players, Nick Evans has remained the only marquee name in the squad when the likes of Saracens, Leicester, Northampton and Bath all have several top international players. Harlequins could certainly do with a Jacques Burger, Schalk Brits, Niki Goneva, Marcos Ayerza, Samu Manoa or Francois Louw. These clubs have also recruited English talent, Strettle, Ashton and Charlie Hodgson all went to Sarries, Freddie Burns and Geoff Parling to the Tigers, the Saints gained Tom Wood and Dylan Hartley from Worcester and Bath have worked hard to get the likes of Rob Webber, Dave Attwood and George Ford.
No one wants this sport to turn into football where the academies are filled with foreigners and the emphasis on the Premiership is arguably higher than that on the National team. But there is no hiding from the fact that rugby is professional, teams buy players to win matches and Harlequins have what may be an arrogance that their academy system will see them through. Young guys like Kyle Sinckler, Charlie Matthews and Luke Wallace can’t be expected to bring the physicality week-in week-out that senior players like Johnston, Kohn and Fa’asavalu brought to the side. Fans are growing tired of seeing their team constantly going backwards at scrum-time against top opposition and this can’t be good for someone like Sincklers development. Dan Cole was brought in behind Martin Castrogiovanni at Leicester and this is the model for which I believe English players should be developed in the Premiership. Freddie Burns learnt off Carlos Spencer at Gloucester, Jamie George is gaining invaluable experience off Schalk Brits and even Danny Care was mentored by Andy Gomersall at Quins.
Saracens took a lot of stick at their recruitment policy early on, the South African influence in particular was heavily knocked, however we are now seeing the rewards of this investment in players such as Will Fraser and George Kruis, who needed mentors to develop. I’m not saying that Harlequins need to buy 10 or 15 players but two or three experienced top internationals wouldn’t go a miss. The likes of Nathan Hines, Jim Hamilton, Ian Evans and Adam Jones were all clearly available this summer and that calibre of player is exactly what Quins need. The fact Harlequins only have 7 forwards in their whole squad over the age of 25 shows the enormity of the problem that Harlequins currently face with regards to experience in the pack. With battles against experienced internationally filled forward packs such as Northampton, Leicester and Bath still to come this season it could be a very uncomfortable one for the men at the Stoop. Harlequins will have to hope that young players, such as Sinckler, can learn fast and that their senior players stay injury-free otherwise this could be a very uncomfortable season for Connor O’Shea and the Harlequins supporters who left early on Friday.