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The 'little pebble under your beach mat' driving on Harlequins

By Liam Heagney

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New Harlequins head coach Tabai Matson has reported that last December’s wounding European defeat at Munster was still a hot topic months later at the Londoners’ pre-season for the 2021/22 campaign, leaving them determined to go out this winter and demonstrate their true ability in the Heineken Champions Cup.

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It was twelve months ago when Harlequins came into the European tournament on the back of Gallagher Premiership wins at Northampton and Gloucester but they couldn’t keep up that away form when visiting Limerick, losing 21-7 and then going on to get hammered 49-7 at home to Racing the following week.

With the January pool matches cancelled, those losses left Harlequins eliminated as the eleventh-best side in the twelve-team Pool B while they also lost Paul Gustard as their boss later that month.

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Ryan Wilson on almost becoming a Barbarian
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Ryan Wilson on almost becoming a Barbarian

The upside was how they regrouped incredibly well with the staff they had remaining, going on to win the Premiership title in June in swashbuckling style, and now with Matson on board as the boss, Harlequins are hoping to rectify what unfolded in Europe last time out.

Home and away matches versus Castres and Cardiff away, kicking off in France this Sunday, and the ex-dual All Blacks/Fijian international player can’t wait to get started following a baptism at Harlequins where five of nine league games were won in recent months.

“When I was joining the club I actually didn’t venture too far back, but the Munster game has been spoken about in a very disappointing manner. They were really gutted for the team to lose so convincingly in Europe,” said Matson. “That is often a little pebble under your beach mat during the summer. This is a completely different year. The players have high expectations of what they are going to do and what they are going to achieve.

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“It doesn’t stop you playing against a really good team and getting beaten convincingly. That is the nature of the Heineken Cup, isn’t it? The best teams in the northern hemisphere are here. We have to be at our absolute best to prepare the team as a coaching group because the styles are very different.”

Matson is well versed in the French mentality, having joined Brive in 1998 after they had been 1996/97 European champions, so he reckons he knows what Harlequins will face at Castres on Sunday. “Probably one of the things about playing a French club at home, having been there and played there, but also having played in those home games, this [Harlequins next Sunday] will be a massive target for them.

“They will know if they get their first win in Europe, not only does it make their players grow in stature but also the club and the supporters. It’s such an important fixture for them, you know. And for them, playing the current English champions, it’s going to be really important.

“They will know they have to be at their best, and they will be. They always bring it in Europe, so I’m really excited. Castres has got a strong history. I know you say they fight above their weight, but one of the things about the Heineken Cup is they are one-off fixtures.

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“Do you get your prep right? Do you get your selection right? Do you get the tactics on the day right? If you don’t, a French club at home will make you look silly. So, it’s exciting playing in such an amazing away fixture, in Castres first.”

What is the Harlequins ambition for the year? “They should be excited because the players have higher expectations and when they put their goals together in the pre-season, they truly believed they can get through the second stage of Europe and one thing, probably on the back of last season’s semi-final and final and in the Premiership, is they know that in a one-off game Quins are dangerous.

“So they feel that they have just got to make sure we are adaptable enough to play well through the winter and then if we play a one-off game in Europe, they feel they can get it done. So that is all I’m saying. They don’t have any further aspirations about a semi or a final, but they know that, if they get to the second stage, watch out!”

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