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'I don't feel the need to go into a war of words with the club'

By Liam Heagney

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When it came to predicting at the start of the year what 2021 might have in store at RugbyPass, listening to ex-Harlequins boss Paul Gustard talking in pidgin Italian over the phone from Treviso was something you could never ever have imagined happening. Ever since he inked a contract to become a player at Bob Dwyer’s Leicester in 1997, the 45-year-old’s career in rugby had been based in his native England. Yet there he was last Thursday, momentarily switching languages to illustrate how much life has so quickly changed.

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It was March 2020 when former England assistant Gustard, who first jumped into coaching at Saracens in 2008, was given a contract extension offer at Quins but it never got signed. Rather than commit to staying at The Stoop for longer than the three years he was originally contracted for, he sounded out the market, reckoned Italy was the best fit and it prompted Harlequins to take action, ushering Gustard out the exit last January with five months of the season – and of his existing contract – still remaining.

That snap decision appeared a recipe for disaster but it incredibly wasn’t. Instead, Harlequins somehow steeled themselves minus their head of rugby and they remarkably went on to become Premiership title winners for only the second time in their history. The unfathomable success begged a tricky question: how would history treat Gustard’s time at the club, a success because it was ultimately his team that won the league or as a failure because he was ousted before his deal had expired and before the trophy was bagged?

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RugbyPass take a trek through Italian rugby, stopping off at Treviso
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RugbyPass take a trek through Italian rugby, stopping off at Treviso

This conundrum was something RugbyPass posed to Harlequins CEO Laurie Dalrymple in early July when he was still basking in the fuzzy warmth of Twickenham glory. “I don’t know,” he replied. “That is not for us to maybe comment on or worry too much about. Paul obviously was here for two-and-a-half years. No one is dismissing some of the building blocks that he put in place prior to this season… but I don’t want this conversation to dwell on him too much, it’s more about the achievements of the guys in the group now.”

Put the same ‘success or failure’ conundrum to Gustard after relaying to him the short shrift words of Dalrymple, and the response goes on like a very long Italian lunch. “If you look at it in simple black and white, I joined the club when they were tenth on equal points with the eleventh team. That season (2017/18), London Irish were way off the pace but they [Harlequins] weren’t too far from relegation,” he said, opening with a flourish.

“Next season we finished fifth, joint points on fourth. Next year unfortunately three months in we had a cataclysmic injury rate and then in February, we had a global pandemic. My tenure was hugely interrupted. I look back at things that I feel frustrated that I was asked to do and that I did, some were of my own volition. But you look at the club, I joined when they were tenth, then the two seasons I had they were fifth and sixth and we reached our first cup final in four years.

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“At the start of last season, although the narrative that can sometimes come out is that we won two from eight, one game of the eight was called off due to Covid and the teams lost to were Exeter, Bristol, Racing and Munster. If you look at the (Harlequins) team in the regular season, they lost to Bristol and Exeter again.

“The teams when we played we struggled to get certain players out, so I felt frustrated by that but look, the club made a decision, I made a decision and we moved forward. If you have one foot in the past you never look forward to the future. For me now, I am very excited to be where I am, I am very excited with my family to be here and I’m enjoying my time. I’m happy for the (Harlequins) coaching staff, happy for a lot of the support staff, happy for a lot of the players.

“Whenever you are the head of something, the taller the tree, the stronger the wind and there is criticism and some people aren’t happy with things, but that is the way it goes. You move forward, you move onto the next thing and the number of messages that I got from fellow coaches, players that I had coached in the past, players at the club, all shocked or surprised or passing on their best wishes.

“Like a couple of them said, you have now joined a very elite band of people who have gone on to bigger and better things post the event where you move on early in the contract. I am kind of okay with it, mate. I did a lot of good things there. I got a lot of things right, I got some things wrong for sure. But I always owned up to mistakes and I always put my hand up when I got things wrong and looked to improve. Yeah, I’m kind of okay with it.

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“Everything in life is a learning experience,” continued Gustard, adding that he wouldn’t be hesitant to accept the head of rugby role again somewhere at some future stage in his career. “Eddie Jones is probably one of the most revered coaches in world rugby and he has been head of rugby how many times or director of rugby or head coach. You learn from mistakes, you learn from failing and you learn from success.

I don’t look back at Quins as a failure. I learned a lot of things, I got some things wrong, I have learned from those and I can implement some of those learnings here (in Treviso). Eddie always told me that he always wanted head coaches or people who had sat in the seat around him because the pressure is different. Whichever way you talk about it, it is very hard to recreate the feel of that (head coach) seat.

“At some stage, you have a go and you test yourself and you learn from it and you are going to be better for the experience because I have walked that path, I have worn those shoes. I now know kind of what it feels like, I now know how to run a programme, I now kind of know the different aspects of periodisation and all that stuff, squad rotation, selection, how you manage those kinds of conversations, recruitment and all that kind of stuff.

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“You learn things and I chose personally not to say anything about Quins when I left Quins and even now I’m not really saying anything about it because at the end of the day they are a club of 120 people, staff and players. There are 120 voices, I am one voice and I don’t feel the need to go into a war of words with the club and passing on opinion because the moment has passed and I am not looking back.”

Gustard certainly isn’t and the enthusiasm in his voice when talking about the early stages of his Italian adventure as a senior coach working under rookie Benetton boss Marco Bortolami is easy to discern. “It was 29 degrees yesterday [Wednesday], 26 today [Thursday]. It’s been amazing, so hot. It’s beautiful, really nice. It’s amazing. We always wanted to try something abroad.

“We were looking at Japan or maybe the southern hemisphere and probably with the impact of Covid and older relations and all the rest of it, being so far away from the UK turned us off those ideas and then it was Italy or France or staying in the UK. Since I have been to Treviso I have loved it and we have settled in so well, it’s such a welcoming place, a very social culture, very friendly people. They have made us feel very welcome, so it has been awesome.

“During the pandemic first time around last March (2020), I had a contract offer from Quins but you always see what is the right fit for you and your family. When I spoke to Marco and Antonio (Pavanello) here, compared to the other people I had spoken to, the entirety of the package was right. Everything kind of clicked. In the first conversation, I felt a connection, felt a strong alignment with the direction.

“There are coaching challenges through language, through where the team were suffering massively last year in the PRO14 before the success in the Rainbow Cup, but for the family fit, proximity back to the UK, for our relations and so on, it kind of just worked. Sometimes when you just find things it’s the right opportunity. It wasn’t the one I was expecting but it felt right.

“We’re in the city which is not too big. Inside the city walls, it is quite small and Treviso sprawls out but we are literally next to the main town square. We have got an apartment right in the centre,” said the father of three.

“The awesome part of life is to give your children opportunity and the opportunity to live abroad was something me and my wife were very keen to do. The opportunity to live in a city as beautiful as Treviso and learning another language will give them another tool in life but also even though they are young, resilience and adaptability, key characteristics that you look for as you get older, we can start to instil some of these qualities in our young people, which was one of our driving factors for looking abroad initially.”

Gustard’s Italian is understandably still very ropey. “I try but I only know a few bits and pieces. I know a few sentences. I understand more than I can speak. I can ask you, What did you do yesterday? Cosa avete fatto ieri? I can start talking to you about little things but deeper conversations are tricky.

“We have started to engage, we did some lessons in the UK and the children are now in school in Italy so we have got the textbooks to help us and they are learning and then my wife and I, the club are organising tutors for all English speakers, opportunities for players, coaches and their partners to learn Italian. The club has been proactive in terms of a new kind of initiative this year.”

It’s an attitude reflected on the pitch in the opening weeks of the revamped United Rugby Championship. Having ambushed the Stormers in round one, Benetton followed it on Saturday with a dramatic clock-in-the-red heist versus Edinburgh to leave them two wins from two and have Gustard feeling optimistic about what can be achieved in the long term.

“A few years ago the team was successful in terms of getting to the knockout stages and then didn’t kick on for a year or two. Last year they won a trophy at the back-end of the season and this season we need to build on that. What progress looks like for me is building on that success, getting more Ws than we did. Last year we got one draw in the competition. We now have more than we did last year in the comp, so people could say it’s progress but that is not the benchmark we are looking for.

“You have an on-field performance, where you finish on the log because that indicates growth, but also seeing where these players develop. We need to make sure that we continually produce our own because we are a two-team nation, we need to continue to produce players to be able to play for Italy.”

The URC’s predecessor tournaments – the PRO14, PRO12 and the Celtic League – have a sullied reputation in England but Gustard never bought into talk that it was of inferior quality. “If you talk to a lot of people in the Premiership it probably gets looked on as a league that is maybe not the level of the Premiership… but if you took at URC teams you’d be hard pushed to say three or four of those on paper, on form in Europe over X amount of years, wouldn’t be in the top four, five in the Premiership.

“It would be very hard to say Leinster wouldn’t be a top-four team in the Premiership, for example, with their success in Europe and there are three or four teams that would all argue a case to be definitely top six in the Prem. English people may have thought in the past the Premiership was different but I never really subscribed to that way of thinking.

“Everyone (in URC) can play. They have got some bright and I see the game growing with the South African teams coming in. In the long run that is going to create a lot of interest in the competition, a lot of interest for supporters to see some of these big southern hemisphere teams, some of these star players coming to their grounds. That is a really super exciting thing.

“Mostly in the Premiership everyone does the same thing depending on the quality of players, your injury list etc can have a big outcome on the performance, but most teams attack the same way and most teams defend the same way and most teams have a similar set-piece philosophy, a similar way to play the game in areas of the field and so on. I find the URC is a slightly different competition and I have been really enjoying that coaching aspect. It’s important that I learn and contribute as much as I can.”

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'I don't feel the need to go into a war of words with the club'

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