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Back from the abyss, Bath's revival is gathering steam

Johan van Graan has quietly set about improving every facet of the West Country club and results are starting to come

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'New Zealand was massive for my development... I'd recommend it to anyone'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Trevor Collens/AFP via Getty Images)

Joe Marchant was at it again on Saturday, the midfielder demonstrating his invaluable backline flexibility by filling in on the Harlequins right wing and exhibiting the fast twitch that now makes him a regular Test-level player with England. His moveability was initially evident in how he was the first man on the scene to congratulate left winger Caden Murley when he scored his two early first-half tries, and then came his own big 36th-minute moment in the spotlight.

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Alex Dombrandt had feasted on a rash offload from Owen Farrell and there was Marchant zipping in with support on his shoulder, taking the transfer and rounding off the breathless counter-attack with a snazzy diving finish to beat the covering Elliot Daly to the right-hand corner in a fascinating contest that eventually tilted the way of Saracens on a 30-27 scoreline.

The 26-year-old has always had the eye for scoring – his latest visit over the whitewash was his 44th try in 107 Premiership matches. But the thing about his current visibility in the Harlequins No14 shirt is that it was only the other day he was telling RugbyPass that the outside centre role was his preference for the 2022/23 season leading into next year’s World Cup in France with England.

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“That 13 and wing combination is something that is relatively easy and exchangeable as I am the kind of centre who likes to be in space anyway,” he explains about his selection versatility. “I just love being on the pitch and playing the game, so I am happy to be on the pitch wherever I am but 13 predominately because I have played most of my rugby at 13 since I went professional.

“That is the one this year I will probably be looking at a bit more but the more I get game time on the wing as well always helps,” he added, nailing his preference for a position that is constantly evolving. “Thirteen changes every year. Some years it is more about being in space and it’s more that link player on the outside.

“Some years it is more about really being that key defender and making sure you are the one that is making the reads, you’re the one who brings all the insides and outsides together. The role definitely varies but for this year what I am looking at is just trying to get my hands on the ball. I want to show what I can do and just be amongst the Quins style because we have got a very good mindset that if you see something just do it, just play what you see with the great guys around me, I will be on their shoulders if they want to do that.”

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Having mostly been a regular feature in Eddie Jones’ England squad in recent times, starting six of the seven Test matches from the November win over Australia through to the March denouement of the Guinness Six Nations away to France in March, Marchant then started the first Test in Perth in the tour series against the Wallabies. While he was excluded for the following two games, if he ultimately winds up in the 2023 World Cup squad it will owe much to his ballsy decision in 2019 to emigrate.

He’d been given his first England start in the pre-World Cup win over Italy in Newcastle but wasn’t part of the squad for Japan and rather spend the full 2019/20 campaign working through his frustrations at Harlequins, he made just three autumn appearances in the Premiership before packing his bags and re-emerging on the other side of the world as part of the Blues squad for their 2020 Super Rugby schedule.

The pandemic shut down the world while he was there but he was fortunate. New Zealand’s strict protocols helped the sport to restart far quicker than anywhere else and the whole experience helped to mould Marchant into the threat that he now is on a rugby field, a staple on the Harlequins XV and an operator that Jones’ England have taken a real shine to.

“Me and my agent had been speaking about it for a long time about playing Super Rugby and then the opportunity came,” he recalled. “I spoke to the various people I needed to clear it off with and I just asked, ‘What do you think, is this crazy what I am doing? I am in and around the England mix at the time and I don’t want to ruin my chances or anything like that’.

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“And yeah, everything to do with it was positive and then Quins were brilliant, they let me go and on the back of that, I signed a deal to stay at the club for another couple of years which I absolutely love. Overall, it was just a great process.

“New Zealand was massive for my development and I’m really pleased. I definitely learned a lot. I feel like I am the same person as before who was loving rugby and just wanting every time I step out on the pitch to personally enjoy it and to put everything I can into the game, but I feel those extra skills I learned out there are just something that has just helped me.

“I feel like it is all coming together, which is really nice, but Harlequins have got a big challenge ahead this season with the World Cup coming at the end of the year. We want to put the best foot forward for the club and if that goes well then hopefully that will put me in a good space going forward to England stuff.”

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A post shared by Joe Marchant (@joemarchant96)

Those extra skills, can you elaborate? “One of the big ones I found speaking to Leon McDonald was about when you are in space recognising your own space and just calling the ball there, trusting the process. You see that a lot in Super Rugby and in the All Blacks team, it doesn’t really matter what number a player has got on his back, they are all able to do the skills and it is just about trusting the process and if someone is in space, giving it to them.

“So for me coming back I have got such talented boys like Danny (Care) and Marcus (Smith) around who can hear a call and put it on the money. Just that going into a game and being confident in what I am calling, being confident with what I am asking from them and they will deliver. You definitely see that every time we are on the pitch now.

“New Zealand is a country that loves rugby but it is also a beautiful country, there is so much you can do. I was in Auckland but going down to South Island, travelling around, experiencing different things, it was just lovely, a great part of the world. It was really beneficial and I feel like there is so much more (talent) in the Premiership who could go as well.

“It’s not just about playing rugby on the other side of the world, it’s about living on the other side of the world as well, living away from family and how hard that can be as well and just growing yourself as a person. It’s all those skills alongside the rugby things that you learn that just gives you a fresh outlook on everything. I’d recommend it to anyone and any young players at the club when they ask me about it I’ll always say definitely do it, you’ll love it.”

Mention of Care, his continued presence at Harlequins is the prime example of how a reputable career can be enjoyed well into your 30s, suggesting that Marchant had plenty of road ahead if he minds himself and keeps delivering the hard hards. The Care durability certainly isn’t lost on his fellow backline player.

“Danny is getting better as he gets older, like a fine wine. It’s great to see and it gives us all hope. He’s 35 and he is probably in the best shape he has been in. It’s great for all of us playing the game. This is my ninth year at the club and it is great to have someone who is still ten years ahead of me and is still smashing everything he does.

“He is brilliant because he fits into any category, he can literally chat with anyone and is such a friendly face. I remember when I first joined the club he was one of the most senior guys who spoke to us at the start and he just made me feel so welcome. I still see him doing that with the first years coming in so it’s brilliant, but loads of the boys do it, to be honest. It’s a very friendly bunch at Quins. Everyone is very inclusive and it is just a good culture, a good place to be at.”

That vibe was captured in the Prep to Win documentary series produced by Beno Obano, the England and Bath prop. The footage zoomed in on the club activities in pre-season 2021 just weeks after they had won the Premiership title across the road from The Stoop at Twickenham and this open access was time well spent by Harlequins.

“Definitely, I had loads of good feedback from that documentary,” Marchant emphasised. “Beno did an amazing job on it. He was actually such a great guy to come into us because he has played rugby at the same level, we have been in the same environments together with England so he knows the craic and made the questioning very good and in a way that anyone who doesn’t play the game can understand.

“He did a brilliant job there and hopefully it has been a great insight to anyone that doesn’t play rugby, anyone that wants to know what the Premiership or the professional rugby environment is like, it is good insight.

“It [the Harlequins way] is amazing, it’s such a good feeling and to know all the boys in the squad, literally from my first year coming in all the way to someone like Danny who has been here for near 20 years, it’s just amazing that everyone is on the same page and we love it.

“Hopefully, you can see it because we have all got smiles on our faces when we are playing, but it is a really good brand of rugby and we just need to make sure we get it going and keep it at the level we want it for the whole season.”

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