Harlequins have been there or thereabout for a few years now, but there is a sense that they might have peaked, with the new wave still a year or two away. With classy international players at key positions they remain highly competitive, and with few changes a pretty tight knit squad. Some highly dependable players have moved on, however, and there’s a real lack of depth at several positions that could come back to bite them.
First and foremost of course is at flyhalf, where over the past six years Nick Evans has proved himself one of the all-time great Premiership imports. Having just passed his 34th birthday, however, one can’t help but feel that time is not on his side, and should he suffer any injury there is only Ben Botica to fill in, or youngster Louis Grimoldby in an emergency. Not entirely comforting from a fan’s perspective.
While the front row seems in reasonably good shape, the second and back rows look pretty threadbare in terms of experience. Charlie Matthews is now a senior lock after only just breaking into the senior side, and the backups Sam Twomey and George Merrick, though highly rated prospects, have barely more than a handful of Premiership experience between them. The departures of club stalwarts Maurie Fa’asavalu and Tom Guest have left only three back rowers of proven quality. Joe Trayfoot, Jack Clifford, and 19 year old James Chisholm will have to step up in a big way when Chris Robshaw is on England duty and Nick Easter needs a rest.
It’s not quite alarm-bells-ringing scary, but it does seem like a risk to put so much faith in the the youth in an area where battle-scarred veterans reign supreme. Surely recruiting another back rower and a lock would have been in the best interests of the squad, if only to plan for contingency. On paper it looks a gamble if not a considerable oversight.
The backs do look more comfortable, especially with the additions of high quality pace men Asaeli Tikoirotuma and Marland Yarde, but even here there are some concerns. George Lowe is returning from a career-threatening neck injury, Ross Chisholm has spent the best part of two seasons on the sidelines, and Jordan Turner-Hall hasn’t shown England-challenging form for some time. It all just adds to the pre-season butterflies for Quins fans.
With all guns blazing they are still a formidable unit and in ideal circumstances it will be another strong season at the Stoop. The very top might be a stretch but they are easily capable of being in position to challenge for a playoff spot. If things don’t quite go according to plan, and they rarely do in this business, then it could be a challenging season for Conor O’Shea. Expect a slight dip in fortunes with a middle-of-the-pack finish most likely.
He’s enjoyed a cozy ride with the squad up til now, earning plaudits and even suggestions that he might quickly move up into the top spot for Ireland. His recruiting record hasn’t been so hot, however, and this season looks like it will be a real test of his abilities. The gloss on his record might looked slightly more scuffed come the spring.
A surprise choice to replace the incumbent, and one wonders whether the decision was made by Robshaw or by O’Shea. Many have questioned the decision and with both candidates certainties for England selection one wonders if perhaps George Robson or Nick Easter might have been better alternatives. It’s a clear vote of confidence from O’Shea, one that suggests Marler’s days of ill-temperance are seen to be past. In the quiet struggle of the front row, that might not be such a good thing.
Like Stuart Hooper at back, he’s just a little too small and not quite physical enough for international rugby, but he remains an outstanding contributor at club level. He’s a one-club man with well over 100 matches in the Premiership and one of the first names on the team sheet. He’ll be even more vital this season with only young pups beside in the second row queue.
You wouldn’t like to be a tailor trying to find a neck on the young bull. Built like the proverbial brick outhouse, the England u20 graduate is, along with Will Collier, one of two highly rated tighthead prospects at the club. He is frighteningly mobile for a man of his size, and his late season form in the scrum was hugely promising.
The race to sign this first class finisher has been on for some time, with Quins emerging the winners after some gentle nudging from some England teammates. There are concerns about his defense, but none about his ability to find the white line, and at the end of the day that’s what what you pay the big bucks for. Whether running through tacklers or around them, at his best he is a match winner.
IN – Marland Yarde (London Irish), Asaeli Tikoirotuma (Chiefs)
OUT – Nick Kennedy (retired), Maurie Fa’asavalu (Oyonnax), Tom Guest (London Irish), Tom Molenaar (London Welsh), Sam Smith (Worcester)