So much for all those best-laid plans at Harlequins. With Paul Gustard insisting he wanted to do better this term than last season’s fifth-place Gallagher Premiership finish, there were high hopes around the Stoop that they would get off to a flyer during the World Cup delayed start to this year’s tournament.
Instead, they have flattered to deceive. One win in four outings is exactly the same return they managed at the beginning of last year’s Premiership, their first under the ambitious Gustard.
It’s always the way when you train like Tarzan during the pre-season – you never do have any real idea as to whether all that exertion will definitely pay off in terms of match results when it comes to the settling-in phase of a campaign.
Losing to Exeter, Northampton and Worcester has simply been no fun at all, Harlequins’ round two win over current league leaders Bristol their only straw to clutch as they pause their domestic efforts and turn attention to Saturday’s daunting Champions Cup trip to Clermont.
“It is tough,” admitted skipper Chris Robshaw to RugbyPass, reflecting on the scores that haven’t matched the optimism generated by his squad flogging themselves on the summer training ground in Guildford.
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“Pre-season, everyone says ‘we are a million dollars, we are working hard, we’re pushing more in the gym, we’re lifting more, we’re running further’, all this kind of stuff and you are – but so is everyone else and everyone’s grass is green.
“Then you get into it… we had a good game against Exeter, didn’t quite come away with it. Very tough conditions against Bristol and unfortunately we got served up by Northampton (and beaten by Worcester).
“We’ll park that and go into the Champions Cup and then the excitement really starts. Clermont away in the first game, there is no better club stadium in world rugby I don’t think and we have been lucky enough to experience that in the semi-final of the Challenge last year. Unfortunately, we lost but it was a close game (32-27) and hopefully we can do one better.”
? It was a wild ride when we played Clermont last season!
— Harlequins ? (@Harlequins) November 13, 2019
Now 33, Robshaw has come a long way in recent times from the sullen, under-fire character who skippered England to their miserable pool stage elimination at the 2015 World Cup. Guarded interviews have given way to much more openness, an approachability that is serving him well now that his Test career is seemingly past tense having not been capped by Eddie Jones since June 2018.
Looking back at the World Cup that has just finished in Japan, he suggests that the experience encountered by the beaten finalists was a far cry from the dynamic that enveloped the England squad for years ago at their own World Cup.
“You look at the ability of a lot of players coming through and having that World Cup experience, they knew what it was like and after the pressure of playing at home in a World Cup they went over there and speaking to a lot of guys, they felt they could escape that and they could get away from it.
‘In England, it felt – myself as well – it was all-encompassing. You couldn’t go for coffee, you couldn’t do much because it was huge whereas over there you see the guys in (Tokyo) Disneyland, on the beach, all this kind of stuff. They were able to get the maximum intensity in games but then come away from it and really relax.”
The closest the 66-cap Robshaw came to the action was watching from his sofa 6,000 miles away. For sure, it made for quite a different experience than being out there on the pitch leading his country as he did four years ago. But he was able to appreciate it all the same as seeing the excitement of the fans at home gave him a flavour of the sport he had largely lost sight of.
“I was watching (the final) at home. We didn’t get home (from Northampton) until probably one o’clock in the morning so I just watched it at home on the sofa and relaxed. It was tough. You feel for the guys as well – you have a lot of good friends there.
“You can see things aren’t going to plan. You feel for Kyle (Sinckler), being a World Cup final and knocked out in the first five minutes or less. That was tough. You see their faces after the game. They had so much hope and excitement going into that game, to come around on the wrong side of a lot of decisions, to not get where they wanted to do, was very difficult.
“This World Cup was very different to the one four years ago where I had the incredible high to be leading the side and the incredible low of losing to Wales and Australia and it was tough. This time as a spectator, as a fan, it was different.
“Seeing how excited people were and how that galvanised the country, it was really interesting to see that because sometimes in sport, you don’t realise. You go from hotel to stadium and back to hotel. You might have a day off where you go for coffees but to actually see that… I live in a rugby area and you see the buzz around it and it was brilliant. Of course, there was a huge low in the final but England can come back from that.”
Aside from club duty with Harlequins, Robshaw busied himself during the World Cup with plenty of media work and even a day out with a DNA company to discover his mixed heritage. The punditry was interesting from the perspective that he was mingling with people from other sports who were taking a rare look at the rugby from the Far East.
“It’s a different challenge and you have got to challenge yourself in different ways, don’t you? You have to continue to further yourself or life gets a bit boring. It’s using language in a different way. You are mixing with different people who have a different perspective on things, going into radio where it is a predominantly football show and seeing their perspective for an outside view in getting drawn to a World Cup because that is what we do.
“You get excited and you get drawn to these big things, Olympics, World Cups, huge tournaments, Commonwealth, where they really capture the nation. To hear their perspective as well and what they thought of our sport was intriguing.”
English, I knew. But Scandinavian? South American? Never saw that coming! Watch me get my MyHeritage DNA results. Order your kit today at: https://t.co/Xar4mOec9G and use code CHRIS to get free shipping @MyHeritage #ad pic.twitter.com/ICoZCNos3G
As for the heritage exercise, there were some revelations. “I found out I was one per cent Latino which I never thought I would be. Seeing me dance, it’s not something I can imagine. And a bit Scandinavian.
“It was an interesting experiment to see where I was from. I knew the basis where I am English with a bit of German in me – my grandma was German – but there was a bit more Scandinavian, a small bit of Welsh and Scottish. Only small though… it’s good fun. You get to know a bit more about yourself and it is amazing what they can actually find out.”
A bit like Harlequins as they set out on their European path at Clermont… they will quickly get to know more about themselves after a troubled star to the Premiership.
WATCH: World Cup-winning captain Siya Kolisi makes a speech to South African fans in Cape Town
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