On Saturday, Harlequins looked like the exciting, eye-catching side that tasted Premiership glory in 2012. We analyse what went so right for Conor O'Shea's men.
Last week, one broadsheet billed Harlequins’ clash against London Welsh as a ‘basement battle’. Although undeniably clichéd, the epithet was accurate enough – Conor O’Shea’s team were languishing in ninth place before travelling to Oxford.
Over 11 games, their fast-paced approach had not quite clicked. Indeed, for large parts of their 24-13 victory over Welsh a week ago, things remained rather disjointed. However, Saturday’s date with Leicester Tigers finally brought fluidity.
On a harum-scarum afternoon at The Stoop, the 2012 champions made a mockery of their position on the league ladder. Fittingly, the man who spurred the result was someone who has been wholly unaffected by his team’s inconsistency. Nick Easter put in yet another gargantuan performance.
To borrow a point made recently by Jamie Carragher in reference to his former Liverpool teammate Steven Gerrard, we would be going totally crazy about the Harlequins No 8 if he were a recent academy graduate displaying similar form. As it is, in light of Ben Morgan’s dreadfully unlucky ankle injury, there are plenty of calls coming for Easter to make an imminent England return and add to his 47 caps.
Whether or not the 36 year-old does receive a phone call from Stuart Lancaster, he will be huge part of his club’s surge during the second half of the season. Certainly, Harlequins were back close to their entertaining, all-action best during a 32-12 defeat of Tigers. Here is how they found themselves.
Defence: desperation and breakdown decisions
Leicester seemed understandably confident coming off a rousing triumph over Bath and, with so many quality players amid their ranks, they were always likely to cause problems at certain times. In high-stakes matches between good outfits, momentum shifts are a given – your response to spells on the back foot is what defines you.
Graham Kitchener made one fine line-break and Owen Williams fired Leicester into a 9-3 advantage. That said, Harlequins never stopped working or lost a tangible togetherness. Watch this reaction to a Mat Tait run:
George Lowe is brushed off initially, but Chris Robshaw – on his first game back after injury – brings down the Tigers full-back. Tait then manages to link up with Geoff Parling and Lowe scrambles back to make another tackle. Ben Youngs is then engulfed.
Even though Harlequins are far behind the gain-line, they show work-rate and discipline to retain their structure on the next phase:
Fly-half Owen Williams is pressurised and a cross-kick comes to nothing.
Captain Joe Marler sets the line-speed here, and he was quietly outstanding all day. This copybook hit on Tom Youngs – among the most effective carriers in this country – stopped the visitors dead:
Leicester in general, and their superb openside flanker Julian Salvi in particular, derailed Bath by throwing bodies at the breakdown and disrupting ruck ball. Springbok Francois Louw, so influential this weekend against Wasps, could not get a look in.
It was a totally different story this time around. Robshaw reproduced the pilfering that ousted Australia and made himself a total nuisance. His first sniff came when Ben Youngs took a quick tap and raced away:
Although Tait does just enough to haul the ball back on this occasion, it isn’t long before England’s skipper forces a penalty out of referee Luke Pearce when Parling is felled by Kyle Sinckler‘s chop-tackle:
Leicester enjoyed 55 per cent of possession in the second period, meaning Harlequins needed to soak up some steady pressure. They did so very well. This lineout maul five metres out was halted when Charlie Matthews man-handled his way through bodies and onto Leonardo Ghiraldini.
The Italian hooker peels away, but Robshaw dives in and clamps on as he loses his footing:
Minutes later, Marler was the beneficiary as Parling found himself isolated. With 67 minutes on the clock, this evidenced the loosehead’s impressive engine and appetite. He is not about to hand over England’s number one shirt:
With regard to the Harlequins defence, it is best to finish on one instance from the first half which tied together desire and decision-making. Watch what happens as Williams darts clear and links up with Kitchener:
A direct tussle with England incumbent Ben Youngs teased out a wonderful Danny Care display, and this cover tackle on Kitchener is a brilliant intervention. Ugo Monye and Mike Brown then keep their cool, retreating around the back foot to counter-ruck and force the ball loose.
Brown regathers and, seeing space in front of him, elects not to kick. The choice is rewarded when Care hits a sycthing support line. It was a neat encapsulation of Harlequins’ attacking effort.
Attack: angles, offloads and ambition
Expansiveness and impeccable core skills form the bedrock of O’Shea’s philosophy. Even early on, the hosts set their stall out to fulfill those ideals. Using the full width of the field, this exchange between Care, Easter, Robshaw and Brown – which only ends due to a contentious ruck penalty as Brown enters the wrong side – is characteristic of Harlequins’ attacking intent:
Later comes this neat move directed by lively fly-half Ben Botica:
Rather than a conventional midfield switch, receiver Matt Hopper plays another pass to Brown. As Austin Healy pointed out on BT Sport’s live programme, the point is to lure the fringe defence out of position:
Only an intelligent, proactive piece of play from Parling (orange circle), who moves from the guard position on the other side of the ruck to stop Brown, prevents a clean break.
Soon afterwards, Leicester were not so lucky:
From almost precisely the same structure, Hopper feeds Joe Gray, who sends Easter carrying into the body-guard position. Tom Youngs intercepts him, but strength in contact buys Care enough time to dart onto his shoulder.This screenshot shows how Parling and Ayerza are just too slow to react:
O’Shea labelled Easter’s deft offload “out of this world” in his post-match interview. It is worth another look, for sure:
Having wrestled the ascendancy, Harlequins – and their Easter-Care axis – did no relent. Here, their No 8 trundles into the Tigers 22 with a powerful carry. Pearce awards a penalty as Salvi infringes.
Where it would be so easy to take three points at only 10-9 up though, Care senses weakness and maintains the tempo, linking up with Marland Yarde:
Two phases later, Jack Clifford gave more notice of his massive potential by bursting over:
Care’s running threat keeps the fringe defence honest and Clifford, pacey enough to have represented England at sevens, exploits the opportunity nicely:
Not long after half-time, Yarde got in on the act with a timely try that would have boosted his Six Nations prospects:
Easter’s pass into midfield here shows unfussy awareness, essentially handing space to a dangerous strike runner. Then, two pieces of clever semi-obstruction – let’s call it distraction – from Sinckler on the left and Tom Williams on the right help fashion a gaping hole:
Sheer speed sends Yarde clear.
From here, Harlequins needed to defend for a decent period, but they broke loose at the death to clinch a bonus point:
Featuring runners hunting shoulders from depth, this score is Harlequins all over. Brown’s acrobatic assist out of the back of his hand may have won headlines, but Joe Trayfoot‘s effort – delaying until Anthony Allen has overrun his interception attempt – is arguably even more skilful and instrumental in manufacturing the opening.
This tighter angle is insightful:
O’Shea ‘s last words for the media were simple: “We’re coming.”
Indeed it appears so. And Harlequins are climbing the table staying true to their own style, which is all the more refreshing and respectable.
Thanks to BT Sport and Premiership Rugby for the match footage. For tickets to the Premiership Rugby Final click here.