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Esterhuizen excellence in a different sport lifts Harlequins' mood

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Alex Davidson/Getty Images)

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Andre Esterhuizen showed his prowess at another sport this week to help lift the gloomy mood at Harlequins following their dramatic Heineken Champions Cup exit last weekend. The Gallagher Premiership champions were eliminated by Montpellier on a 60-59 aggregate scoreline and a senior players’ meeting on Monday resulted in the squad playing some cricket to lighten the atmosphere after their deflating European misfortune.  

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“We went to work Monday and then played a bit of backyard cricket in the afternoon,” said senior coach Tabai Matson, explaining how Harlequins hit the reset button at the start of their preparations for this Saturday’s Premiership game at home to Leicester.

“That was an idea from the spine group meeting – they were pretty gutted. There was a genuine desire to move deeper into the playoffs, to push in Europe, and to be knocked out at this stage was a bit of a kick in the guts. They know they have missed an opportunity. There weren’t many rugby balls, but now we are back to work.”

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Who impressed on the oval? “Andre Esterhuizen got a couple of wickets, surprisingly, from poor bowling,” revealed the Harlequins coach. “Sometimes poor deliveries get the catch. Annoyingly that bloody Australian general manager we have, Billy Millard, looked good at times, but his knee is slowing him down a little bit. We weren’t playing full field.”

The cricket dabbles over, third place Harlequins now head into their home league game knowing that a win over the table-topping Tigers would lift them into second place and put pressure on playoff rivals Saracens to respond when they host Exeter on Sunday. 

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With Esterhuizen named again at No12 outside Marcus Smith, Matson has made just two changes to his Harlequins XV – including a recall for fit-again skipper Stephan Lewies whose influence was immense in picking up the broken pieces of their European misadventure. “Steph was fantastic, partly because he has been out the mixer for a while. He was like, ‘All we can do is focus on Leicester’. It’s a good week with regards to that because if we don’t get this right, Leicester will humiliate us. You can’t sulk for too long.

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“The lessons we learned from that defeat we have to right if we are serious contenders to be in the top four in the next four games. There are some silver linings in there,” continued Matson, who returned to the Premiership for the 2022/23 campaign at Harlequins having previously worked at Bath in 2016/17.

“The clearest thing from when I was at Bath was Leicester were going through this DNA change. What they have done is gone back to their roots, are formidable around the set-piece, are the best in the league, are ferocious defensively, work so hard for each other. The underpinning of their success is they are leading the competition in those areas. 

“A lot of things that have been their trademarks for decades are back. They are clearly well-drilled with Steve (Borthwick) there and they are setting the standard. The last time Harlequins went there they beat us pretty well at home, so what a great challenge to bounce back from an exit – to play the best team in England at the moment and measure ourselves again.

“We came up short against the top team in the French league and we get the chance to do it against the top team in the English league. We will know after this weekend where we sit in France and England.”

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Which team has most bothered Harlequins this season? “That’s a really tough question. One of the things I love about the Premiership is it’s the toughest competition in the world. The closeness of games, the way it is structured… it doesn’t matter who you play on the ladder. 

“We lost to Bath, who are the lowest team on the ladder. The win against Worcester was one of our most important victories because it was one of the toughest for a number of reasons that week. They have all been very difficult in their own right but at the end of the day, Saracens have beaten us twice and Leicester have beaten us. 

“The two teams in front of us in the league are clearly, in our opinion, setting the standard. They have set the benchmark and we need to lift it. This week is really important for measuring ourselves.”

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