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'I'm sure he'll handle pressure of a home crowd baying for blood'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Paul Harding/Getty Images)

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Harlequins have braced themselves for the challenge of trying to silence a partisan French crowd this weekend who are sure to give Georgian referee Nika Amashukeli quite a baptism of fire when he takes charge of this Sunday’s Champions Cup opener versus Castres. It was eleven months ago when rookie official Amashukeli was denied his refereeing debut in Europe’s premier club competition, pandemic restrictions resulting in the cancellation of Harlequins’ planned January trip to Racing.

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The Georgian has since gone on to referee a round of 16 Challenge Cup match between London Irish and Cardiff, while also making his tier-one Test level breakthrough by taking charge of the Wales-Canada and Ireland-Japan matches. However, a Champions Cup game in France will likely produce an atmosphere he hasn’t had to deal with previously.

“We are aware that the referee is going to play a key part in the game and we generally pride ourselves on our discipline,” explained Harlequins assistant Jerry Flannery ahead of their round one Champions Cup assignment. “It’s one of the strongest parts of our game and this referee, I watched him when he refereed Japan and Ireland and I thought he had a good game there. It was quite a one-sided game, I can’t see our game going the same way but I am sure he will handle the pressure of a home crowd baying for blood and he will make the right calls.

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Ex-All Blacks prop John Afoa guests on RugbyPass Offload
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Ex-All Blacks prop John Afoa guests on RugbyPass Offload

“The vision for the club is to be one of the most admired in Europe and you are only going to do that if you perform well in the European competition and the Champions Cup is the premier club competition in the northern hemisphere so I don’t think we have had to sell it to the players.

“Some of the lads haven’t played away in France in the Champions Cup so we are just prepping them for that and the trick is when you play your first game away in France and Castres at home, they are a really proud team, they have had some good results lately but they are probably not where they would like to be in the league but they are going to go hell for leather on this.

“What I have seen in the past from French teams, if they don’t go well in the initial couple of rounds they generally tend to field a weakened team. We’re not going to bet that, we are going to get the strongest Castres at their best after a great win against Racing. How we handle that, how we handle the referee, how the referee handles the crowd there, his decision making will be key.”

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Amashukeli is one of four first-time Champions Cup referees who will feature over the opening two rounds. Wales Craig Evans (Exeter-Montpellier), Italy’s Andrea Piardi (Ospreys-Sale) and France’s Tual Trainini (Harlequins-Cardiff) are the other whistle-blowing newcomers and while Harlequins will hope Amashukeli will hold his nerve at Castres, they head there very satisfied with the set-piece discipline in last Sunday’s narrow league loss at Leicester.

“We won four penalties at the lineout, we won three penalties at the scrum which is pretty impressive to go to Welford Road,” reckoned Flannery. “Just some of the stuff that we normally do very well, our aerial game and out structured are really, really strong and they were probably off a little bit but you fix those things in a week.”

HARLEQUINS (vs Castres, Sunday)
1. Joe Marler
2. Jack Walker
3. Will Collier
4. Dino Lamb
5. Stephan Lewies – Captain
6. James Chisholm
7. Tom Lawday
8. Alex Dombrandt
9. Danny Care
10. Marcus Smith
11. Cadan Murley
12. Andre Esterhuizen
13. Huw Jones
14. Louis Lynagh
15. Tyrone Green
Reps:
16. Jack Musk
17. Santiago Garcia Botta
18. Simon Kerrod
19. Hugh Tizard
20. Jack Kenningham
21. Lewis Gjaltema
22. Will Edwards
23. Oscar Beard

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