Paul Gustard has defended his Harlequins players following inflammatory claims by Munster boss Johann van Graan that the Londoners tactically set out to target the opposition with late hits at Thomond Park last Sunday. 

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Harlequins, who lost the yellow card count 3-1 and the penalty count 15-10 in Limerick, bore the brunt of van Grann’s frustrations in the post-match fallout, the South African particularly unhappy that his reserve out-half Ben Healy was clobbered twice after the ball had gone during Munster’s hard fought 21-7 win. 

Gustard, though, has defended his team’s approach, suggesting that the yellow-carded tackle by Harlequins back row Alex Dombrant would have been a legal challenge not so long ago while prop Joe Marler pulled out of the other tackle on Healy. 

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Asked what he made of the Sunday evening accusations from van Graan about Harlequins, Gustard said on Wednesday evening: “I’d like to think it’s probably heat of the moment type of thing post a game. Healy got tackled twice, once actually.

“Alex Dombrandt spots him out the back, (he’s) committed to the tackle just as Jean Kleyn was committed to the tackle, let’s say, for Mike Brown. We actually lost a player, Mike Brown has gone off concussed for HIA and Healy didn’t, he stayed on for the remainder of the game. 

“For me, Alex timed it slightly wrong but it was so marginal. Go back X amount of years and that would have been a legal tackle but now it’s obviously not. There was no decree from us in our planning for the week that we wanted to target Healy or target (JJ) Hanrahan any more than people trying to take away time and space from any nine and ten in a game. 

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“In the first half when the ball was bobbling around from a lineout Marcus Smith went to tackle Hanrahan and Damian de Allende came flying in and tackled Marcus Smith. Were they trying to go for Marcus Smith? No, I don’t think so. I just think it is one of those things. 

“Joe Marler bailed out of a tackle and turned his back on him [Healy]. Joe Marler is 125 kilos, it’s like hitting a brick wall, and Alex got his slightly wrong. There was no intent from us, we don’t go out to injury or hurt a player. We go out to play hard and fair.”

Gustard, who suggested that Harlequins played with one hand tied behind their back due to the receipt of three yellow cards, added: “We gave away too many penalties in the second half which took away our opportunity to win the game which was frustrating because I think only five teams have won there the last 75 or something like that. 

“We were in the game with a strong chance to compete. Marginally Munster edged it in terms of performance but we were at an away ground with two Irish ARs and TMO. I thought the boys played with courage, with a lot of desire and intent and it was disappointing that we gave away the penalties that we did because that took away our opportunities.”

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Asked should the Champions Cup officials supporting a referee also be from a neutral country (last Sunday’s referee, France’s Pascal Gauzere, was backed by an all-Irish cast), Gustard said: “Look, it is what it is in the current situation. It was more tongue in cheek really, just a thing when you go to an away ground. 

“But as I said, they intervened on certain things. There was a couple of things they didn’t intervene on that might have gone in our favour, knock-ons and little bits and pieces that went against us. 

“It was just one of those things but look, our frustration comes from within, it doesn’t come from external. It comes from the things we had in our control and things that we did that took away the opportunity to have a platform for us to compete on a level playing field and compete to get a result.”

Harlequins’ defeat was one of six for the eight English Premiership clubs that took part in the opening round of the Champions Cup. French clubs won seven of their eight games and the PRO14 won three. Gustard, though, didn’t read much into that pattern. 

“The Premiership is a very, very tough competition. It’s not to say the other competitions aren’t tough, but the way our athletes are in our situation we are not centrally contracted, it’s a slightly different environment. 

I can only speak from our situation. I haven’t watched any of the other games to see why the Premiership teams weren’t more successful like Exeter. For us, we went with a good plan, we played against a very ferocious competitor, a well-coached team, a team that are well engrained in what they are trying to do. 

“They had eight internationals returning from Ireland so we knew we were playing against a good team in their own back yard and to be able to compete, to be able to win, we had to be able to keep 15 people in the field and we had to execute when we had our opportunity. 

“Unfortunately we got pulled back for a forward pass in the ten, 15 minutes we were camped on their line. We didn’t come away with a score. It ultimately led to a huge turnover and a fly-hack up the field and it cost us points. There were two pivotal moments in the game that cost us… it really hurts.”

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