There is no way to describe Harlequins’ 2017/18 season as anything other than forgettable.
On the pitch, the team struggled, slipping to 10th in the table, their worst showing in the Gallagher Premiership since the 2004/05 season, when they finished bottom and spent the next campaign in the Greene King IPA Championship.
It led to a parting of ways with director of rugby John Kingston, who was in his second season in the role, after spending eight years with the club as head coach. It prompted the late-season acquisition of England defence coach Paul Gustard as ‘Head of Rugby’ and the former Saracens coach took up his responsibilities with the club earlier this summer, following England’s tour of South Africa.
Even with the additions of Billy Millard as general manager, who has taken on the burden of contract negotiations, and lineout guru Alex Codling, an area of the game Quins particularly struggled in last season, no one is expecting Gustard to rebuild the iconic club into Premiership and European contenders in the space of a few months.
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One ace that Harlequins do have up their sleeve, though, is the versatility of their back line and the potential for an array of different combinations.
This isn’t just in terms of quantity, although the club do have one of the more well-stocked back lines in the Premiership, but rather an amalgamation of distinctive styles that should give Gustard the flexibility in game plan to make Quins a nightmare for teams to counter this season.
Starting from the inside out, Danny Care has matured into one of the best all-round scrum-halves at club level. It’s a long time since he was just the darting threat around the fringes, a role that has now been taken up by Calum Waters.
Waters was one of the standout performers at the recent Premiership 7s event and whilst there is no guarantee that ability transfers over into the game of XVs, his eye for a gap and acceleration was reminiscent of a younger Care. He could be just the weapon off the bench that the likes of Dan Robson, Ben Vellacott and Ben Spencer have been for their clubs in recent years, before pushing on for larger roles.
Fly-half has become a position of real strength for Quins, with the dynamic talents of Marcus Smith stacked up opposite the more traditional northern hemisphere skill set brought by the South African Demetri Catrakilis.
Catrakilis can play the corners, consistently knock over the three-point opportunities and is no slouch running a back line with the ball in hand, even if he is not quite the natural playmaker that Smith is.
At 19 years of age, Smith still has so much scope to improve but is already capable of pushing the tempo, finding space on the field with his boot and playing with composure on the gain-line. These are all skills that are required by modern fly-halves, especially as the Premiership continues to increase ball-in-play times and encourage all-court games.
It is at inside centre where the competition feels particularly strong and there should be no lack of ability to get Quins over the gain-line this season, something which could help make up for the lack of dominant ball-carriers in the pack, which was highlighted during international windows and their immediate aftermath last season.
Unfortunately for Francis Saili, his European adventure has yet to really get going. He enjoyed a strong debut 2015/16 season with Munster, before having injury severely hinder his second season with the Irish province and his first season in south-west London with Quins. If he can stay fit and return to the form that saw him prized by a number of European clubs when he was at the Blues, he will be a valuable and multi-faceted threat outside of Smith and Catrakilis this season.
Ben Tapuai has also been brought in, following two impressive seasons with Bath. One of the things that stood out during Tapuai’s stay in the west country – not to mention his stints with the Reds and Western Force – was his ability as a support-runner.
It remains one of the biggest differences between northern hemisphere rugby and the game in New Zealand and Australia, where any linebreak is followed by a flood of players looking to provide offloading options. There were countless times last season when Care or Smith would make breaks, only to see a dearth of options following them through and in this regard, Tapuai may have the advantage over Saili and recent signing Paul Lasike.
A former NFL fullback with the Chicago Bears, Lasike is, unsurprisingly, a bulldozer with ball in hand, although there is more subtlety to his game than the highlight reels might suggest. He was born and raised in New Zealand and represented Waikato U19s before trading in his boots for cleats, and the all-round skill set you would expect of most New Zealand-reared players is still there. He may not have stood out as a support-runner for the Utah Warriors as Tapuai did with Bath, but in fairness to him, that may well be because he was generally the man making the linebreaks for the Warriors.
Marchant will be the favourite to start and given his impressive performances in a struggling side last season, that is no surprise. He has the pace to burn defenders one-on-one with his outside arcs, boasts a deceptive power that comes from that speed and has good ability to recover defensively. If teams start to fan out to counter his speed on the outside, he has the footwork to cut back in against the grain and make the most of any extra space that defences show him on the inside.
As for Ibitoye, it may well be that the Quins coaches see him as a wing, the position he has played for the England U20s and where he received nominations for the Junior World Rugby Player of the Year award in 2017 and 2018, but centre may be the best position for him. It was from the 13 spot that he captained the England U18s and it’s where he defensively looks at his best.
He can blitz out of the line and attempt to shut down attacking phases before they can get the ball wide, but he also has the recovery speed to bail out of a blitz attempt if he doesn’t think he can get to his man in time and still make it across the field to ensure that his wing and full-back aren’t left isolated. That lateral quickness and decision-making, not to mention the opportunity to more regularly influence the game in attack, makes outside centre an appetising spot for Ibitoye.
From, say, a Smith, Saili and Marchant midfield – or even Smith, Marchant and Ibitoye – to a Catrakilis, Lasike and Tapuai combination, Quins would seem to have midfield options for all conditions, opponents and game plans, with the likes of Lang and Harry Barlow also offering unique skill sets in multiple positions.
On the wing, Nathan Earle has been brought in from Saracens, Alofa proved his value last season, Barlow has been promoted from the junior academy, Jonas Mikalcius is attempting to come back from an ACL reconstruction and Cadan Murley and Max Coyle are both looking for more opportunities in their second seasons of professional rugby.
Again, the versatility of the options available to Quins is so impressive.
If Gustard is looking for two out-and-out speedsters, then Walker and Alofa – or Ibitoye if viewed as a wing – would be the men to go to, but if he wants to combine that speed with larger frames, to help contest the battle in the air, then Visser and Earle would be the obvious choices. Mikalcius offers rare physicality, Murley and Coyle have the footwork and Barlow is the all-round utility back.
Morris offers a booming boot and good playmaking skills at 15, whilst Chisholm brings further pace as a finisher when joining the back line, floating inside or outside of a wing.
Any and all can be mixed and matched to achieve the right result on the pitch.
Undoubtedly, Quins will have a favoured back line. Come the season opener against Sale Sharks, Gustard will have a strong idea of what it looks like and come the first two rounds of European rugby in October, he will have an even better idea of it.
That said, the beauty of this group of Quins backs is that it seems more multi-faceted than perhaps any other group in the Premiership. Depending on what you expect your opponent to bring to the table each week, it could be mixed and matched to counter that, albeit within the realms of keeping consistency and not causing undue disruption.
Ultimately, it has the potential to go horses for courses, injuries permitting, each and every week.
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