Happy New Year, everyone! It’s now back-to-work time and the business end of the rugby season.
Sadly, the Harlequins have been resolutely stuck in second gear this term. After 12 rounds of matches, we’re languishing in 8th position in the Premiership, albeit at least we have it in our own hands later this month to progress further than the group stage of the Heineken Cup replacement, the European Rugby Champions Cup.
Yesterday we scraped – and that’s the appropriate word – a 5-point away victory in Oxford by the margin of 13-24 against the relegation-doomed London Welsh.
I didn’t attend the match and didn’t watch it on television (it wasn’t being broadcast) and so my only impression of it will be similar to that of my readers who may have read or seen newspaper reports. The performance by a largely second-string Quins team must have been indifferent, to say the least, and London Welsh, who hitherto have lost 12 out of 12 by an average of about 40 points a game (including away at the Stoop), should this morning be cock-a-hoop at the ‘progress’ this result represents for them.
Where has it all gone wrong for Quins and what are we doing about it?
Firstly, as I’ve mentioned previously, our development policy has something to do with it. Our concentration upon our ‘home grown’ academy programme is widely-praised but, given the way things are going in other Premiership teams, our ‘we’ll take a few beatings now and again this season, but you just watch our youngsters in three or four years’ time’ approach is actually a handicap. All around the league – week in, week out – you see top-standard, fully-mature, overseas talent plying its trade to positive effect.
Which group of fans wouldn’t trade their club’s potential ‘rosy future’ for results success in the present, especially when firstly, successful other teams just buy top new talent every year to maintain their momentum and secondly, there’s no guarantee as to how quickly – if at all – any given home-grown academy youngster will progress to Premiership starting XV quality, let alone beyond that?
They say the average career of a Premiership player is less than four seasons – so, on the face of it, one can understand why short-termism is not only attractive but seemingly sensible.
Secondly, our pack’s front-five is under-powered. We have a heartening range of youngsters on our books in these key positions but too often they tend to get ‘schooled’ by the gnarled old vets they play against week on week. Sometimes our boys surprise our fans, and even possibly themselves, with temporary dominance over their opposite numbers, but mostly they don’t. There’s a kernel of truth in the old rugby adage that the packs decide which team wins and the backs by how much.
Thirdly – and for me this is the crucial issue – we do not have enough ‘penetration factor’ in the midfield. Most pundits see this also as an England problem, but it’s definitely a Quins one. To be blunt, in 2014/2015 terms, our roster of specialist centre threequarters – George Lowe, Matt Hopper, Tom Casson, Jordan Turner-Hall and Harry Sloan – are either lightweight, not in peak form, or currently returning to fitness from injury.
Defences are so strong these days – in terms of both strategy and key skills including tackling – that it’s a major problem for rugby, particularly from the entertainment angle.
‘Trucking the ball up’ and endlessly recycling the ball is now a standard ritual. If that doesn’t work and/or result in a penalty, then – at the point, effectively, of having run out of ideas – some bright spark in the back line then commences the infuriating default option of an aimless ‘kicking ahead’ ping-pong competition in the desperate hope that the opposition (rather than his own team) will drop the ball, knock it on … or somehow otherwise cock-up and thereby give away an advantage, even if it amounts to only ten yards of territory.
It’s a sad fact of modern rugby that some elite teams can actually play better without the ball than with it. Sometimes, either as a temporary measure or as a strategy for an entire game, they deliberately allow the opposition to have possession.
In this context, a centre who can break a defensive line, or who can be relied upon to make five to ten yards with every carry, is worth his weight in gold. The Harlequins don’t have one – or at least one who is playing well enough to do this regularly – and this is a major issue for us.
It’s also the reason why currently the England international set-up, as well as we rugby fans and pundits, are taking such an interest in the (so far stuttering) progress of rugby league great Sam Burgess, who began playing for Bath six weeks ago.
He was renowned as one of the biggest impact players and carriers ever in rugby league – if he can translate those attributes to rugby union, he’ll be worth all the trouble, hype and every penny. Even at this stage of his development, I’d buy him for Quins tomorrow if I had the money.
Finally – and most importantly of all – what are we (Quins) doing about all this?
To be perfectly honest with you, I don’t know.
The coaches keep pumping out the media quotes about how we’re suffering from injuries and are getting closer and closer each week to giving someone a real hiding (“if we can get our game on the pitch…”).
However, there’s a slim border between keeping things positive and just bullshitting, between crying wolf and … er … the opposite of crying wolf.
Recently I’ve been losing my blind faith in Conor O’Shea and his coaching staff. This current bunch been together for a long, long time and I’ve always held that, every now and again, an injection of new blood to any team (in any business or sport) definitely freshens things up.
The bottom line is that Quins desperately need a taser-shot in the behind to get us pumped up for the next four and a half months.