5 Things Harlequins Must Do to Reach the Aviva Premiership Finals
The Harlequins currently sit fifth in the Aviva Premiership table, one place outside the finals positions. With a 12-7 record, it has not been a vintage year so far for the 2012 champions.
With only three games remaining, the Quins must raise their game in order to qualify for the sudden-death postseason.
Including comments from their star fly-half, Nick Evans, the following pages will detail what the team needs to do in order to contend for another title.
All quotations in this article were obtained firsthand.
The Harlequins espouse an attacking rugby philosophy. Their tendency to play on the front foot often enables them to dictate the pace of the game and place great pressure on their opponents. This positive brand of rugby has brought great success recently to the club with trophies in each of the previous three seasons.
However, with ambitious play comes risk, clearly evident in numerous costly errors this season. A lack of consistent execution whilst in possession has resulted in too many turnovers. These errors have not only thwarted their ability to score points, but also gifted their opposition good field position to launch attacks.
When clicking on all cylinders, the Harlequins offense can be one of the most dangerous and unpredictable in the game. Fly-half Nick Evans has seen the emergence of this attacking ethos since he joined the club six years ago. He feels that it has lacked consistency this year, which needs to change in the run to the finals.
“We need to be more accurate. We play with a huge amount of emphasis and tempo, and we know that brings mistakes," Evans said. "But this year we’ve made more than we usually do.
“We expect a lot from our players with ball in hand and without. The inaccuracy has cost us in terms of bonus points, including four-try bonus points.”
Through being more meticulous and reducing mistakes over the next month, we may just see the return of the consistently potent Harlequins from recent seasons.
Make Their Home a Fortress
Through 19 rounds, the Harlequins have played 10 away games, giving them the benefit of two home games over the final three weeks. Both of these will provide a stern test for the quartered jersey with fellow finals contenders, Leicester and Bath, both making the journey to Twickenham.
Winning home games has become imperative in modern sport, with wins on the road becoming increasingly difficult. All of the great club sides over the years, e.g. Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson, have made their home stadiums an intimidating place for opponents to visit.
After conceding games earlier in the season, the Harlequins have managed to turn their home fortunes around. They have won all of their premiership home games so far in 2014 and are starting to invoke that fortress-like feel back to the Stoop.
“We have talked about making it a really hard place to come. I think at the start of the year we got turned over a few times and it doesn’t take long to lose that fortress tag,“ says Evans.
“But I guess winning seven games in a row does bring a bit of weight back. We need to be a bit more fluid and cut-throat at home, and that starts this Friday. We are going to have to be right on the money against Leicester.”
Keep Their Players on the Park
Injuries always play a part in the rugby season. The Harlequins have not been immune to this scourge during the season with key players, including Evans, Ugo Monye and Jordan Turner-Hall, all spending time on the sideline. Evans notes that this has had a particularly destabilising effect.
“Due to injuries we haven’t been able to send out a stable squad week in and week out. It’s been a bit frustrating because the consistent squad we’ve had for the past three years hasn’t really been there.
“That’s always the trouble when you don’t have a big squad compared to the big boys like Saracens and Northampton.”
Also depleting the side this season have been the teams’ international representatives. Unlike the Super Rugby competition in the Southern Hemisphere, the Aviva Premiership does not have an international window when Test matches are played. This results in the exodus of many star players from their club sides during parts of the season. The Harlequins have had to soldier on without the services of Danny Care, Joe Marler, Mike Brown and captain Chris Robshaw for at least a handful of matches this campaign.
Their return over the past month has given the side an enormous lift. “It’s good to get the big guys back and give the team a bit of confidence.
"The last two weeks we’ve been able to put the same team out, which we haven’t done since Round 3. It’s nice to get that fluency and consistency going again,” says Evans.
If the squad can stay healthy and keep their best players on the park, the Harlequins may now be ready to peak at the right time.
With only three games remaining and finals positions on the line, the Harlequins are likely to be embroiled in some tight contests in the weeks to come. It is during big matches where the Harlequins have managed to stay cool under pressure in recent seasons and eke out some clutch victories.
It is goal kicking that often provides the crucial edge in close games. The reliable boot of Nick Evans has steered his side over the line on many occasions. Moments that come to mind include:
1) A sideline conversion in the dying moments to win the European Challenge Cup final in 2011.
2) Kicking six penalties in consecutive weeks to help Harlequins win the Aviva Premiership semi-final and final in 2012.
3) Slotting a late penalty to gain victory against Wasps after erasing a 27-point deficit at Twickenham.
Harlequins’ major competitor for a finals berth is Bath. The Somerset side currently sit five points clear in fourth place. George Ford will be the man whose boot they will be relying on down the final stretch of the season. Recent history would not fill Bath fans with much confidence. With the game on the line in Round 18 against Sale, Ford missed a relatively comfortable conversion, as well as two drop goals, that would have given his side victory. These were all pressure kicks, and all failed.
Harlequins face Bath in Round 22 which may decide the final place in the top four. If it comes down to kicking, it is Harlequins who have the edge through Evans’ clutch boot.
Win, Win, Win!
Over the final three rounds, a trip to Sandy Park to face Exeter is sandwiched between home fixtures against Leicester and Bath. The Harlequins can afford nothing short of victory in these crucial contests.
The Stoopers are currently five points adrift of Bath and a prized finals spot. Sixth-placed Sale are also still in contention. A single loss will surely see Quins fall short. Former All Black, Evans, understands the team’s predicament, which has been no different since they suffered their seventh defeat in Round 17.
“It’s been cup-final footy for us the past three weeks, and it will probably be heading into Friday’s game against Leicester.
“We know we’ve pretty much got to win everything, but it’s the kind of footy that the club enjoys—creating a challenge like that. “
The Harlequins will recognise the pressure of having to go unbeaten during the remainder of the season. If they make the finals, a trip to Saracens or Northampton is probable. Exeter, who only lost twice on their home patch in the premiership last season, will also be tricky.
Evans is confident of his team’s ability to succeed away from home.
“We’ve probably played better on the road than we have at home, which is a bit unusual. We’re a team that doesn’t really fear travelling.“
With a fearless and more cohesive unit at the back end of the season, the Harlequins may be capable of running the table and repeating their premiership success of 2012. Time and results will tell.