This weekend the Harlequins will play their final friendly pre-season warm-up match, against the Glasgow Warriors, before the opening of the 2014/2015 Premiership campaign in the London Double Header at Twickenham Stadium next month.
It may be a sign of the times but, in contrast to his normal practice, this year your correspondent will have failed to attend any of the pre-season activities (viz. ‘meet the players’ days, 7s tournaments, or full-on friendly matches) before Quins take on London Irish on 6th September. Through a combination of extenuating personal circumstances and sheer sloth – I watched the Premiership 7s final on television, in preference to going down to the Stoop – I found myself with greater priorities.
However, let us be frank. When retained to air your views on a particular subject, as I have been, nobody ever insisted one had ‘to be there’ in person in order to form them. In fact – if you think about it – arguably, it is probably easier to come to an incisive and firm opinion if you haven’t. In which spirit, today I present my brief preview of Quins 2014/2015 season before departing upon my annual family holiday at the weekend.
Conor O’Shea, director of rugby, has told the press that Quins’ pre-season has gone well and that the results of our pre-season friendlies are irrelevant. This is just as well, as in our two 15-a-side games so far (away against Grenoble and at home against Pau) we have notched a loss and a draw.
Regular readers will recall that our disappointing season last term was put down to a slew of early long-term injuries which resulted in having to rely upon squad – rather than first team starting – players and/or kids from the academy up to Christmas, by which time we were well down the league table. We might have missed European Rugby Champions Cup qualification altogether but for a spirited ‘5 wins in 5’ finish to the Premiership season to make the play-offs. The effort left the players out on their feet and sadly we surrendered rather tamely in our semi-final.
I’m particularly looking forward to the return to action of centre George Lowe, who suffered a serious neck injury last autumn that put him out for the season (and might have been retirement-enforcing), and Ross Chisholm.
George is a fans’ favourite because he gives 100% every time he gets on the pitch and hopefully Ross – electrifyingly quick at wing or full back – won’t have lost any pace after recovering from the ACL issue he suffered just as he was establishing himself in the first team.
With the departure of veterans Tom Guest – to London Irish, of all teams – and Maurie Fa’asavalu (‘Big Mo’) to France, Conor O’Shea has managed to ease the crush of emerging back row talent seeking to gain regular first team rugby. Besides the evergreen Nick Easter and Luke Wallace, I shall be looking to see the likes of former England Under-20 stars Jack Clifford and James Chisholm (younger brother of Ross) pushing Joe Trayfoot and current England captain Chris Robshaw – when available – for game time.
I have long been a fan of Charlie Matthews, the giant lock famously once retained by Quins in preference to Joe Launchbury, current mainstay of the England team, and 2014/2015 is a crucial season for him. He became a regular in the engine room last year and now needs to push on and prove that he can be more than just a solid club player.
Similarly, this is an important year for wing/centre Charlie Walker. He made a huge impact with his twinkling feet and raw speed last year, but was ‘found out’ defensively in the away game against Northampton Saints in which Welsh monster George North swatted him away with ease, shortly after which Charlie then suffered a season-ending injury.
Joe is one of Quins’ folk-heroes and a prop straight from Central Casting with his whacky hairstyles and ‘slightly-mad’ reputation. Last year, when he became an England regular, he grew up big-time. This was just as well, as the season before he had developed an unhealthy tendency to get into far too many confrontations and fights – some fans were concerned that the frequency of his ’10 minute rests’ on the naughty step was giving him liability status.
Personally, I think Joe may have been picked to be skipper as a challenge, which Conor O’Shea hopes will turn into an inspired one. If, as I hope he will, Joe responds by stepping up and taking to the responsibility with maturity – without, of course, losing his competitive edge – then Conor’s hunch will have been vindicated.
Fingers crossed, then …
For those seeking a bit of light relief, I include here a link to the video available on YouTube of Joe Marler asking referee Andrew Small whether he was wearing his high-visibility boots for a bet during last season’s home match against London Irish – JOE MARLER QUERY