With Messrs Robshaw, Brown and Marler all giving a reasonable account of themselves in England’s 22 – 30 loss to New Zealand at Twickenham yesterday, the attention of Quins fans has returned to the pressing issue of the moment – the Club’s stuttering start to the 2013/2014 season.
The pessimists among us might argue that Harlequins have yet to turn up, period.
Apart from the away spanking of relegation favourites Worcester Warriors on 20th September, the team have only rarely – and for brief periods – demonstrated the mesmeric passing-interplay and offloading game that swept them to the Premiership title only a season and a half ago. In those days, when Quins were on their game, few others had an answer to it.
But note the tense – that was then.
There is not a game known to man (or woman) in which the tactics required to win are not constantly evolving and, arguably, improving. This is nothing to do with complacency, or loss of desire to stay at the top in those who have won. The truth – in life perhaps, never mind sport – is that anyone who stands still is actually going backwards.
In this context, the first charge that might possibly be laid at Quins’ door is that, tactically, we may not have ‘pushed on’. Or perhaps that should read ‘not pushed on to the same degree as our opponents’.
There’s a business theory that the maximum any management team should remain in post is five years, simply because – after about that length of time – they tend to run out of steam. Also, it is a fact that occasional changes of leadership benefit an organisation.
When he arrived at the Club in the wake of Bloodgate, Quins’ director of rugby Conor O’Shea made a point of keeping on the coaching team he inherited from Dean Richards and has barely changed it since.
Perhaps – I’m just saying – a new perspective would freshen things up.
Next, we always used to pride ourselves upon the fact that the Stoop was a bit of a fortress. At one stage a while back, we did not lost there for eleven months. This term, we have lost three home Premiership games out of four. I rest my case.
Worse, squad confidence, a key component amongst the many that contributed to the Quins’ style and success, has gone AWOL.
The coaches and players have never stopped trying. They go through the training drills and prepare for games as diligently as ever. They get out on the pitch and play to the game plan and the patterns that they’ve practiced, ad nauseam.
Yet, these days, the onlooker can sense immediately that there’s no dynamism, no penetration and – crucially – little collective inner expectation that their performance will lead to either short-term success or ultimate victory.
Fourthly, I’ve already done my fill of belly-aching in this column about the endless injury list. But let’s be honest, it’s an explanation not an excuse.
Fifthly, we make a great deal of just how many of our squad have developed out of our academy system, so there isn’t a man jack amongst them that doesn’t know the calls, the plays and the systems that Quins use. In that respect, if promoted for a game (or a run of them), the youngsters should have no problem slotting seamlessly into their roles.
In the media, Conor has regularly trotted out statements to the effect that, any day now, Quins are suddenly going to hit form. Frankly, I’m getting sick of hearing them – and I’m sure that he must be getting pretty sick of spouting them.
Last Friday night (15th November), we hosted Sale Sharks at the Stoop in the group stage of the Anglo-Welsh LV= Cup. Sadly, it was case ‘business as usual’. For all its huffing and puffing, Quins’ performance was ineffably lame and insipid.
Sale arrived plainly fired up, had a simple game plan, executed it well and had real ‘dog’ about them. The bottom line is that, they wanted it more than we did and, as reward, duly took the spoils 31-26.
The difference between the teams was at its starkest in terms of possession. When we had the ball, we advanced with little conviction and barely broke the gain line. However, whenever Sale gained possession, there was an immediate expectation amongst the crowd that something was going to happen, that probing questions were about to be asked of our defence. That contrast just about sums it up.
This morning I took a call from my ancient father, who asked how the Sale game went. Normally when we have this conversation, I go into considerable detail because he loves to hear it.
Instead on this occasion I simply replied “The result was closer that we deserved – the better team won on the day and that’s all you need to know.”
I’ve got a grim sensation in my gut that I’m going to be saying that a lot more this season.