So my old boys, Harlequins are preparing for a play-off semi-final. Who would have thought that back in January when Gussy (Paul Gustard) left.
People have asked me what’s behind Quins’ return to form and personally I think it’s Joe (Marler) not going away with England. I would put that down as the single biggest reason for them getting through what was a difficult period. He has been as important as Marcus Smith, if not more. He loves a laugh but beyond his quirky persona is a serious player and he has destroyed opposition front rows in recent months.
I remember speaking to Gussy when I was making my decision to move on. I said to him, ‘This squad is about a year or two away from being really special’.
Just look at the age profile of the squad; (Alex) Dombrandt and Marcus Smith are 24 and 22. Will Evans had an incredible season before injury, Luke Northmore is showing his quality. Then you have the Saffas André (Esterhuizen), Wilco (Louw) starting to settle. It reminds me of when Exeter had Jack Nowell, Henry Slade and Luke Cowan-Dickie coming through, or Saracens with Jamie George, Owen Farrell, Mako and Billy (Vunipola). Great sides tend to have a strong core, and with the experience of Danny (Care) and Joe, who are playing well, their ascendance isn’t as surprising as many would think.
It’s funny, though, because whenever a coach goes, you tend to get a reaction. Whether it’s England when Stuart Lancaster went, us when John Kingston went, or Wasps when Dai Young went, form picks up. What has impressed me is how they’ve kept it going, without tailing off.
As for the weekend, now they know they’re playing down at Bristol, I think they will prefer that to Exeter or Sale Sharks. Quietly, I think they’ll be backing themselves.
One criticism, perhaps, is that they’ve shipped too many tries but the mitigating factor is they lost their defence coach in Gussy. That will definitely tighten up when the right appointments are made.
Speaking to the players, they feel they’ve taken on more workload and responsibility, the scrums have been going well and I love the attacking rugby they’re playing – you’d pay to watch some of that stuff!
As for the weekend, now they know they’re playing down at Bristol, I think they will prefer that to Exeter or Sale Sharks. Quietly, I think they’ll be backing themselves. To win anything, you need a quality set-piece and Bristol were seriously tested by Leicester. They had to hang on for the win. Hopefully Sale and Exeter will smash lumps out of each other and our boys will sneak into the final.
It’s amusing that they’re facing the Bears because they’ll see an old friend in Kyle Sinckler. Like most people, I couldn’t help but admire how open he was after his Lions omission. In a way, it shows how open society is. For me, interviews like that show we are definitely turning the tide. When I was England captain, the party line was, ‘You don’t give anything away, you don’t want to say too much’, but now it’s gone the other way. The public love seeing a player’s human side, knowing they aren’t robots.
Rugby needs strong individuals like Kyle or Ellis Genge to speak out. Joe (Marler) had a fantastic show about mental health recently and seeing these big, strong sensitive props shows it’s okay to address your feelings.
With Kyle speaking as openly as he did, the backlash on social media was tempered because fans could see where he was coming from. I’ve seen Kyle come through the ranks at Quins to being one of the best tightheads in world rugby. Admittedly he had some rough edges in those early years and may have done a few silly things, but all young people do. Eddie Jones has been fantastic with him, taking him under his wing and moving him forward.
Six years ago, he may have reacted badly. He may have blamed other people and been confrontational about it but he left it all out there and showed his vulnerability. To see this abrasive, edgy young guy, say, ‘I’m not in the right place at the moment, I’m hurting’ made people warm to him. It was a brilliant piece of raw emotion and you couldn’t help but feel empathy towards him.
Rugby needs strong individuals like Kyle or Ellis Genge to speak out. Joe (Marler) had a fantastic show about mental health recently and seeing these big, strong sensitive props showing it’s okay to address your feelings. It changes perceptions and I can’t stress how important that is. As much as I’m happy for Kyle, it’s hard not to feel for Andrew Porter. Mentally he was on the plane and he has had his dreams crushed. My best wishes go out to him.
Time seems to have flown since I said my farewells at The Stoop, but it was Browny’s (Mike Brown’s) turn last weekend.
The final chapter wasn’t how he wanted to go out with the club but he has given everything and deserved that lap of honour with the fans back.
You wouldn’t think it, but he’s actually quite shy off the pitch. When he crossed the white lines, however, he became the ultimate competitor, desperate to win at any cost. I’m so proud of how he developed himself to the point he was Player of the Six Nations in 2014. His consistency has been incredible. As forwards, you knew that when the ball sailed over your head, he’d be back there, taking high balls, getting turnovers, making tackles and running on to the ball.
All of a sudden I was having a beer with Andrew Mehrtens and Andre Vos, thinking, ‘Oh my God, I used to remember playing with you guys on Jonah Lomu Rugby!’
He will be sorely missed by the club, but there comes a time when things move forward. As players, we all wish we were Peter Pan but the Quins machine can’t stand still.
While there are Premiership final places to be won, I noticed the Saracens result down in the Championship. It reminded me of when we got relegated in my first season. A lot of our highest earners moved on and it was an opportunity for the likes of Mike Brown, George Robson and myself to prove ourselves. The sad part is people had to lose jobs but, on the playing side, it was an incredible experience. Dean Richards was in charge and he was a little bit old school, so all of a sudden I was having a beer with Andrew Mehrtens and Andre Vos, thinking, ‘Oh my God, I used to remember playing with you guys on Jonah Lomu Rugby!’
Of course there were some tough old places I went to but I don’t regret any of it. I was 19 or 20 playing at Sedgley Park and Goldington Road. When Quins were in town it was almost like a travelling circus. The atmosphere lifted, crowds would double and I’ve no doubt it was the same for Northampton and Sarries this season. There was an edge on the pitch when the ‘big dogs’ were in town, but afterwards all the sides were really friendly – I even remember having a ‘boat race’ against one side! There was an amateur feel about it, which reminded you why you fell in love with the game in the first place.
I know there’s talk of pulling up the trapdoor, but it will take the edge away if it’s shelved. Be careful what you wish for.
More columns from Chris Robshaw
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