On a day to forget for Harlequins fans, as their side fell to a 14-19 loss at home to Worcester Warriors, the club was making news in other ways, as they inked standout centre Joe Marchant to a three-year contract extension, as well as facilitating him a loan to the Blues in Super Rugby.
The move, which has no real precedent in the professional era of English rugby, will see Marchant spend six months with the Auckland-based franchise, and comes 19 months after Quins and New Zealand Rugby (NZR) entered into a co-operation agreement. It had been presumed the partnership would see players move from New Zealand to south-west London on sabbatical, not the other way around.
Marchant will head out to Auckland for January 1st and stay with the franchise until June 30th, meaning he will miss the second half of the Gallagher Premiership season, as well as the opportunity to break into the England team for the upcoming Guinness Six Nations. With Henry Slade and Jonathan Joseph injured at the time, Marchant featured in three of England’s four Rugby World Cup warm-up Tests earlier this year, impressing and grabbing his debut international try in his first start against Italy.
Although the trio of Slade, Joseph and Manu Tuilagi are all currently fit, their workload is expected to be managed this season and it would not have been surprising to see Marchant involved come the Six Nations, making this temporary move to New Zealand a bold one. The centre has plenty to gain, as do the Blues, though it opens a door to promising centres such as Ollie Lawrence and Fraser Dingwall.
Speaking on the announcement of the centre’s sabbatical, Harlequins Head of Rugby Paul Gustard was enthusiastic on the move.
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“We pride ourselves at the club at treating people as individuals and helping them be the best version of themselves. Joe has had a long-standing ambition to play Super Rugby and with our strong connection with NZR we are pleased we can help facilitate this ambition.
“It is not common practice for this to occur, of which we accept, but we are not a normal club and we must have both Joe’s and the club’s interests at heart. I believe his genuine desire to play Super Rugby was so great we wanted to make sure he had this opportunity whilst he has also extended his contract with us, the club he loves and is hugely loved and respected at.
“I believe he has the potential to be the best 13 in England and this opportunity he has will further strengthen his resolve to maximise his talents, returning with increased motivation to play his best rugby for Harlequins and earn the national shirt.”
A World Cup win in 2023 would be one of the greatest achievements for NZR. The annual results at under-20 level highlight a far more competitive landscape heading towards France, writes @bensmithrugby https://t.co/IAHvRVX2YB
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 10, 2019
There is no reason to doubt that sentiment, either, with plenty of players over the years having benefitted from stints in New Zealand. England’s Rugby World Cup-winning captain Martin Johnson spent time there, whilst stays in the country also added to the games of James Haskell and Tom Wood, as well as Nathan Earle, Piers Francis and Matt Symons more recently. Youngsters have also been spending more time there, too, as evidenced by Andy Christie’s placement with the Wellington academy last year.
As far as Marchant’s game goes, it could not be better suited to a season in Super Rugby. As a player who excels with his speed, footwork and support-running, and complements it with an incisive kicking option, polished handling and good decision-making, the prospect of that skill set being honed in Super Rugby is an exciting one. The former England under-18 and under-20 star has been on a trajectory that seemed bound for regular senior international caps and there’s no doubt that staying in England would be the ‘safer’ option for the centre, making this move all the more exciting from a neutral’s point of view.
From Quins’ perspective, they may be losing one of their most influential and effective players for the second half of this season, but they stand a very good chance of gaining an even more influential contributor upon his return. They’re not banking on just having success in 2019/20, they’re attempting to build a squad capable of consistent and sustained success over multiple years. Their facilitating of this speaks to that goal.
Of course, it’s not just a move with Marchant’s development in mind. That will be the hopeful outcome for Marchant and the club, but what about the Blues? What do the sleeping giants of southern hemisphere rugby get out of this?
Not only do they get an excellent rugby player, one who will help make up for the losses of Ma’a Nonu and Sonny Bill Williams this year, they will also get as many learning opportunities from Marchant as he gets from them.
The Blues have been a fair way away from the playoffs from a number of years now and changing playing personnel and coaching staffs have not been able to rectify that. Admittedly, they play in the toughest conference in Super Rugby and that is reflected in their reasonably good record versus South African and Australian teams, but they will also be able to develop thanks to the presence of Marchant and the IP he brings from Quins.
Despite a recent Rugby World Cup semi-final result, there is still a perception of New Zealand being the bar in terms of rugby ability. It is a fair perception in a lot of ways, but there is also no denying Marchant’s ability and assuming he settles in well in Auckland, he should be the first name on the teamsheet in the franchise’s midfield.
Alongside the incoming Beauden Barrett and homegrown star Rieko Ioane, Marchant will be one of the standout backs at the Blues and despite being just 23 years of age himself, will bring some valuable experience to a group that boasts young talents such as Harry Plummer, Stephen Perofeta and Tanielu Tele’a. If head coach Leon MacDonald can get the group to click, it has no shortage of firepower.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 10, 2019
Although Quins fans will miss seeing Marchant turn out at the Stoop come January, it is an exciting and intriguing move for the player, not to mention a strengthening of that partnership between the club and NZR, something which bodes well for the future.
No other English club has a co-operation agreement in place in the way Quins do, but they will be watching on as interested observers, make no mistake of that. If the move proves to be a success for both the Blues and Marchant – and consequently Quins in the long-term – it could well pre-empt further temporary switches.
English clubs carry large squads to deal with the attritional nature of their seasons, though young players can frequently go underused. That is not the case with Marchant, of course, although there are players up and down the country who would benefit from stints abroad, developing mentally and technically in a different environment to the one they have become accustomed to. As Kiwi, Australian and South African franchises struggle to compete financially with the northern hemisphere, opportunities are there for players to move south on development loans.
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