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Will Evans: 'The stats don’t back it up when they say it is dangerous'

By Liam Heagney
Will Evans celebrates a Harlequins try versus Sale (Photo by Patrick Khachfe/Getty Images)

A penny for the thoughts of England boss Steve Borthwick about last Friday night’s latest Gallagher Premiership extravaganza; where Marcus Smith eclipsed George Ford in the first weekend of the Owen Farrell Test sabbatical era.

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There were also the thrills provided by the Harlequins back row. With Courtney Lawes retired from the international scene and Borthwick’s bronze medal Rugby World Cup poachers and demon tacklers Tom Curry and Ben Earl sidelined, Harlequins back row trio of Chandler Cunningham-South, Will Evans and Alex Dombrandt stood out.

Intriguing is the candid admission to RugbyPass by the London club’s Evans that he used to beat himself up about seeing his peers from the 2016 World Cup-winning U20s going on to strut their stuff at Test level. Why selection for the likes of Jack Willis, Joe Marchant, Max Malins and others from that bountiful age-grade harvest, but not him?

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So bad was the feeling it even kept him awake at night, but no more. Maturity has been kind to the soon-to-be 27-year-old. “We had some amazing players and it has been really nice to see a lot of them go on and play for England,” reasoned Evans over Zoom before Harlequins gave themselves a rousing boost with their swashbuckling 36-3 win over the table-topping Sale. “Unfortunately I have not been able to do that.

“I look back on it with nice memories but maybe slight underachievement that I have not gone on to achieve that as well. I used to worry about that a lot in my younger days having seen people go and play for England from the team I played with, but I put it to bed now.

“It wasn’t good to keep constantly thinking about that, I’d be up at night. Not that I don’t want it [England Test selection] to happen and I will try to play as well as possible, but it’s certainly something I don’t really think about ever at all anymore.”

Time was the soothing healer. “I used to constantly think about it and as the years have gone on, I have just really enjoyed playing for Harlequins and feel like the best is yet to come, which is a nice thing. But the main thing is playing at Harlequins; I love the lads here, love coming into work every day, so it’s easy to not think of other stuff when you’re enjoying something so much.”

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Evans packs a gifted poaching/tackling punch. Before swimming with the Sharks, where he won two turnovers and punched the air in delight with his 68th-minute penalty winner following a preparation where comedian Archie Curzon had the squad in high spirits with his Tuesday visit, the back-rower was listed fifth on the Premiership turnover chart.

He went into the weekend just one steal behind the joint leadership group that included club colleagues Dombrandt and Louis Lynagh, and was also joint fourth in the league’s tackle chart with 84 in seven appearances; excellent work on the defensive side of the ball.

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Will Evans waves to the crowd at Leicester earlier this year (Photo by Malcolm Couzens/Getty Images)

Evans chuckled at the mention of Lynagh – the wing – in this exalted poacher company. “Nah, he shouldn’t be in there. We have had our discussion and we have kicked him out, so you can cross his name off the list,” he quipped. Being serious, though, Evans clearly thrives in this high-pressured area of the game and takes exception when the breakdown is labelled unsafe.

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“It’s generally a lot safer,” he insisted. “You do get looked after a lot more by the referees over the years. When I first started playing, about eight or nine years ago, you had to basically have the ball in your hands for about 10 seconds before they awarded or gave you anything.

“Nowadays if you lift the ball off the floor and you try and rip the ball away and someone doesn’t let you do that, the refs will quite rightly recognise that and give you something. Yes, you are going to put yourself in a fairly nasty position but the injury rate in my opinion and throughout my career has been very, very little and when I see uproar about it, it kind of gets my back up.

“Not only because I’d be probably out of a job if it got taken away, but I just think the stats don’t back up what they are trying to say when they say it is dangerous.”

Scotland boss Gregor Townsend was in Evans’ crosshairs this year. “He wrote an article, and I did slightly go back on Twitter. Not at him, just as a parting comment. I want to defend that when I hear people say things like that, but it gets a bit boring if I’m banging the same drum every week.

“But yeah, it does get my back up. It [the breakdown] is an integral part of the game, otherwise you just have attacking teams running 30 phases at you at a time before they drop the ball. It just seems a bit nonsensical (to criticise it); you need that side of the game.

“You know you’re going to get belted, which is absolutely fine. When the adrenalin is pumping it’s not painful at all. It’s just when people start to roll you or start landing if you spread your legs too wide and the knees are able to be fallen on, that’s where you start putting yourself in a vulnerable position.

“But if you have decent technique and don’t allow people to do that to you, it’s safe and a great way of getting the ball back. When teams kind of go away from putting anyone in there, you’re soaking up so much pressure from the attack and you end up facing 20, 25, 30 phases. As a player, that’s knackering and when you try and attack again, you’re not as quickly into shape. So it’s a massive weapon for every team – or it should be a massive weapon, I think.”

Harlequins, in particular, revel in the counterattack, giving Evans a warm glow if he’s the one igniting their sweep. “This team, especially with our dangerous back three and the backs we have got, are really explosive, can score from tries from anywhere, so it’s important you have people to get the ball back on transitions because they [the backs] can light it up.

“If you can just stick your head in there, pop up with the ball when teams aren’t really expecting it, you can get a lot of tries from it. Over the past three, four seasons, not just me but this back row that I’ve been playing in, have been trying to facilitate those explosive lads.”

Does Evans have a career-favourite turnover? “Great question,” he enthused. “The best ones are where they are linebreaks and the opposition have run a long way down the pitch. That’s where I switch on.

“If someone has made a linebreak there are not going to be many supporters, so I will sprint down the pitch as fast as possible and be the first one there (at the breakdown). There was a nice one at the back end of the last season against the Tigers. I always love playing at their stadium – a fantastic ground, a fantastic rugby club – and there was one on their No8. It’s just an enjoyable feeling when you have stopped a linebreak.

“Even when you’re getting a belting and someone gets the big old run-up on you, you wear it, fall back and have got the ball in your hands – it’s a great feeling. You can hear the crowd appreciate you putting your body on the line for the team and then it’s that 10, 20 seconds after a turnover where you’re not really involved in the play, especially on this team where you’re seeing boys run 50, 60, 70 metres down the field, you want to give yourself a bit of pat on the back because it started from this turnover at the breakdown.”

A massive few weeks are now on the horizon for Harlequins, including an Investec Champions Cup assignment at Racing in France and the annual staging of their traditional Big Game for an 80,000 Twickenham crowd. First, the away day. Norwich City supporter Evans, who did this interview wearing an Argentina football top, passionately believes rugby should facilitate the provision of specific football-like away fan sections at stadiums.

His two rugby experiences were epic: being in the stands at Bristol with 500 Harlequins supporters for their famed 2021 Premiership semi-final comeback win, and then last January when 1,000 Quins fans also had a dedicated section at Racing. Evans relished the intoxicating atmosphere and can’t understand why his sport doesn’t make it happen more.

“I’m so passionate about this; it’s such an easy win. Not to force people to sit together but to have the option. Every club should in their ticket sales make sure there is an area where if people from an away club want to sit together, they should be able to do that because what you see on the pitch is far better.

“When the atmosphere is good the players thrive, live up to it and it’s always an exciting game. And to be honest, you will probably drag more people to the game if you get that bit of camaraderie and there is loads of singing.

“I just think rugby is missing a trick massively because they want to keep so-called values of the game and trying to not be like football when football is the biggest sport in the world and in this country, it’s the most supported in this country. It’s such an easy win just to give that option to people to sit together.

“That Bristol semi-final, even though I wasn’t playing, was my favourite ever game of rugby. The atmosphere in that little corner was incredible; the feeling those 500 people got was like nothing you ever felt before as a rugby fan… and it had a massive influence on the game, a hugely exciting game, probably one of the Premiership’s best ever games. It’s not a coincidence that the two aligned,” he reckoned before switching to Quins’ Racing adventure at the start of 2023.

“That stadium is world class with the indoor setting and the lighting, but to have 1,000 Harlequins people stand in that little corner, chant all game, didn’t get the result but again a really exciting game, and what you felt on the pitch drove you on. Just an unbelievable feeling when you score a try in that end or make a turnover or big carry; it’s just so worthwhile having people stand together.

“They should take it out of the clubs’ hands, either the RFU or Premiership Rugby, and stick them [the away fans] all together. We want to push rugby and make it a global sport. You will have people watching at home thinking, ‘Phwoar, the atmosphere sounds good, I want to be there’. Such an easy win; why wouldn’t you do it?”

Glamour games at Racing and at home to Toulouse are next on Harlequins’ dance card before a pre-Christmas trip to Bath is followed by their bumper attendance December 30 encounter with Gloucester at English Rugby HQ (click here to buy tickets for this men’s and women’s doubleheader). Evans is smitten with the intimacy of big-day fuss, the pre-game meal at The Stoop followed by the short walk to the ground across the A316.

“Atmosphere is always great. Just after Christmas so it’s something for people to do in that period when they are off. It’s always a fantastic game, usually get about 75,000 to 80,000, so it’s a massive occasion.”

How does the stroll over inspire the team? “It just makes it seem like an important occasion, rows and rows of people screaming you on all the way on the 10-minute walk. There are six rows of people throughout the whole walk, so it makes it feel like it’s a big occasion, and no wonder we do well there just through the massive support that we get,” explained Evans, adding he even did the walk when injured for the 2021 Premiership final. “Did it on crutches, after a few beverages as well. It was still covid, so it wasn’t as many people but it still felt special.”

Having spent the early part of his career at Leicester without dominating back row selection, Harlequins was a career-making move for Evans, who describes himself as “a bit weird, a bit quirky, fairly introverted so I’m not massively into going out too much, but I imagine the people of Balham have seen me out for a few beers now and again.”

Why has Quins worked out? “I’ve just really enjoyed the boys’ company. It’s such a fantastic environment to be in, you can be yourself. We play a nice brand of rugby which suits me, especially because we have got some explosive backs. When I make a turnover, I feel like it’s really valuable and it’s driven me to hunt down as many as possible, and London is such a great pull as well. It’s such a fantastic place to live and I love the club, it’s such an outstanding place to work.”

  • This exclusive RugbyPass interview is brought to you in association with the renewed partnership between Harlequins and official trading partner Saxo, a global leader in online investing, for the 2023/2024 Gallagher Premiership season.
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