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Back to the future By Andrew Elliott

It might be a good idea to set your microwave to defrost and stick your ice-cold heart in for five minutes if you don’t feel any sympathy for Mike Brown following his interview in The Mail on Sunday. Seventeen years at Harlequins surely deserves more than a four-minute chat with then-director of rugby Paul Gustard in December, during which he was informed that his services were no longer required by the club.

Despite wanting to continue at Quins until his retirement – and perhaps afterwards – the 35-year-old was forced to seek out pastures new and will be flying up to the Falcons next season. It doesn’t paint Quins, as a club, in a very forgiving light when they are willing to dispense with the former England full-back so dismissively. Brown says he sat in his car and cried after being informed of the decision and wasn’t offered any emotional support. There’s little doubt Quins could – and probably should – have handled it better.

But before we prepare the kindling to burn Quins at the stake, it’s worth looking at it from the club’s point of view too. They are a business, not a charity, and tough decisions have to be made in professional sport. Loyalty, from the player or the club, can only go so far. Whether it was four minutes or four hours, it was still going to be bad news for Brown. Fellow club stalwart Chris Robshaw has already gone, to the USA, and it’s the nature of the game that the old stagers have to eventually give way to the new stars of the show.

A couple of weeks ago, I chatted with Harlequins’ Head of Rugby Operations, Graeme Bowerbank. And while he didn’t specifically mention Brown, he did explain how clubs are having to adjust their financial thinking in the Covid-19 world, when there’s more belt tightening than at a weightlifting contest. He also insisted that player welfare, especially when the end of the road is in sight, is a top priority at the club.

Mike Brown
Veteran Mike Brown enjoyed a lot of success at Harlequins but feels the club have treated him shabbily recently (Photo by Steve Bardens/Getty Images)

“The salary cap has been dropped down (to £5million), which will help financially for every team,” said Bowerbank. “But it will be interesting to see what the top players’ take on it is when what’s being offered, what’s on the table, isn’t as much.

“Most teams will ramp up what their academies look like and you’ll see more kids coming through. There’ll be that movement of players out of the club as guys get older and earn more money. The younger guys are snapping at their heels and we’ll have to give them a go that bit quicker because we’ve got to be able to afford to do it.

There will be boys who will be looking to get that final payout somewhere before they retire.

Graeme Bowerbank on the financial situation

“Everybody has suffered so it will be interesting to see where the money sits. The perception is that Japan is where a lot of money is, so there will be boys who will be looking to get that final payout somewhere before they retire.

“There’s a huge move towards making sure these guys are ready for their post-career as well. There’s a big focus on that at the moment and we’ve got someone here at the club who is dedicated to that.”

But what does a Head of Rugby Operations actually do? In my mind (after watching far too much Netflix during lockdown), he’d be a shadowy figure in the background, Harlequins’ ‘fixer’. Making problems ‘disappear’ before anyone notices, with bloodied knuckles from when he dealt with the opposition’s star scrum-half.

“If I was to try to coin my general role in one sentence, it is to make sure everyone else can do their job,” said Bowerbank.

“I kind of run around with a brush really. It’s making sure the players can do what players do. They need to train, prepare to play at the weekend and then play without any of the hassles that go with it. Likewise technical staff. Coaches want to come in and coach. Medical staff want to come in and treat and look after players.

“Ultimately, if they’re worrying about a load of things going on around them, then they’re going to come to me with it.”

Bowerbank has been at Quins for more than a decade but the past year has been more tumultuous than any other with the advent of Covid-19. As well as a brush, Bowerbank had to launch a major clean-up operation at the club.

We know for a fact we had people within our group who had it. We were probably absolutely riddled with it at that point but we just didn’t know.

Bowerbank on the Covid-19 pandemic

“When it [Covid-19] first came about, we were the first game that got cancelled, which was the Premiership Cup final against Sale, in March last year,” said Bowerbank. “Nobody had the faintest idea what they were doing or what we were actually dealing with at that point.

“We know for a fact we had people within our group who had it. It was almost why it was called off because we called in and were like, ‘We’ve just sent three or four people home with this and it’s two days before the game, what do you want to do?’ We were probably absolutely riddled with it at that point but we just didn’t know.

“Initially, in the first three months, I grew a few arms and legs in that I didn’t stop working. We had to change everything. You’re desperate to keep servicing people who are giving revenue into the business, so we did so much digital work. Obviously the boys who have image-rights contracts that are part of their attachment to the club, you can’t furlough it. So we were still using them to deliver content. One, to keep fans engaged and, two, to make sure we were still servicing sponsors.

“You get given a set of regulations that are completely different to how you normally run things. It’s 75 pages and you’re like, ‘How the hell are we going to make this happen?’ But slowly you take those regulations and make it into one page. There are five or six priorities in there that, let’s be honest, if you break them you’re going to get your arse kicked. And the rest of it becomes common sense.

“Before Covid, you’d put water out on the field and the players would all share a bottle, whereas now you have your own bottle, which should be the case for an athlete anyway. Cleaning up after yourself in the gym and sanitising an area you’ve just been in, it should just be normal. But, because we’re together all the time, standards can slip a bit. People can become complacent in this ‘new normal’, so it’s about going round and making sure they’re following protocols.

“You can’t direct 80 people to follow regulation after regulation after regulation because people just don’t do that. But so long as you get yourself in a position where you’ve got your priorities, like you’ve got to wear a face mask. Especially on a Monday because it’s testing day and obviously you don’t know where you’re at until you get to Tuesday.

“The past three months, although it has been tough because they’ve intensified the protocols, everybody in lockdown has given us a safety blanket. Nobody can go anywhere so you almost can’t catch anything if you’re even remotely sensible. Whereas now is a risky time for everyone with the kids back at school, so we have to be really disciplined just in terms of, come Tuesday morning, we’re fully clean. And if we’re not clean, the person who may have it hasn’t had any contact with other people.”

Bristol Bears
Harlequins came so close to beating league leaders Bristol but were denied at the death (Photo by Bob Bradford/Getty Images)

Quins are looking in rude health on the pitch as well as off it. Despite exiting the Champions Cup after sending out their second string against Ulster, they are sitting in fourth in the Gallagher Premiership, with a play-off spot in their sights, and recently pushed league leaders Bristol all the way in a thrilling, heartbreaking, last-minute 35-33 defeat.

“We’ve been reasonably fortunate in that we had only two boys away with Scotland for the Six Nations,” said Bowerbank. “Joe Marler, for personal reasons, decided to stay with us as he’s a big family man, he has three kids and it was probably too much for his wife if he was away all the time. You add a world-class player – which Joe is – into a competition where others are missing and it makes a big difference.

“What I would say is the players are enjoying themselves at the moment and that’s a huge part of people performing. They’re coming in and enjoying their day, enjoying being with each other.

“The other part of it is, as a group, the players have relished a bit of ownership. They’re making each other accountable instead of the having to do it. We have some really good players and when they’re going out there and enjoying themselves, it’s a great recipe.”

Marcus is a talented kid but the more the media push Eddie, the more he pushes back. He’ll call up Marcus when he thinks he’s ready.

Bowerbank on Marcus Smith’s England chances

The masterchef bringing Quins to the boil is 22-year-old fly-half Marcus Smith, with many pundits calling for him to be brought into Eddie Jones’ squad with immediate effect to try to galvanise a lacklustre England team. It’s a fine line for Bowerbank to tread, for while he wants Quins players to fulfil their international ambitions, the club have to come first and foremost.

“I’ve spent a lot of time with him over the past three to four years – and even before that, as he came through the academy,” said Bowerbank. “Marcus is a talented kid, there’s no doubting that whatsoever. But the more the media push Eddie, the more he pushes back and goes, ‘I’ll make the decision when I’m ready’. He’ll call up Marcus when he thinks he’s ready.

Marcus Smith Danny Care
Harlequins fly-half Marcus Smith has thrived with Danny Care as his half-back partner (Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images)

“It’s a fine balance, though. I remember when Jamie Roberts and Tim Visser were here. Jamie would go off with Wales, Tim with Scotland and we’d lose seven or eight to England. We were missing Six Nations time. Well, I defy any team to be missing 10 players and keeping performing at the top level, especially when they’re your best players. But you obviously want every single player at the club to go on and represent their country, so it’s a tough one.

“The good thing with Marcus is that, whether or not he’s getting picked, he’s a really good learner, he listens well and he’s very driven. He really wants to play for England, it’s a huge ambition of his. He has gone away and worked on things he has been told to by the national team.

“When you play No10, it’s a decision-making position and when you get more experience – Marcus recently played his 100th game for us, which is incredible for a 22-year-old – you’ll get better and better.

“You put him outside someone like Danny Care, who’s playing really well at the moment, and he’s learning to run the game. He has a lot of X-factor that he’s bringing to the table.”

More stories from Andrew Elliott

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