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Quins show England the way

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Ben Dirs | 10:40 UK time, Thursday, 8 December 2011

A rugby ground in Twickenham, south-west London. The corridors run thick with paranoia. Urgent whispers can be heard behind office doors. Rumours ricochet round the place like shrapnel. Heads are set to roll.

But this is not Twickenham Stadium. And this is not 2011. This is the Stoop and the date is April 2009. The media call it 'Bloodgate', as if it is some unspeakable crime from the pages of a James Ellroy novel. It is only rugby, but in sporting terms it is one of the most sensational felonies of the decade.

Two and a half years on and the crime scene has been disinfected and it is all fresh nostrils and beaming smiles at the Stoop again: 14 wins out of 14 this season and a home Heineken Cup fixture against French dandies Toulouse to look forward to this Friday.

Across the way, the Rugby Football Union's bigwigs could be forgiven for peeping through their blinds and ruminating: "If Harlequins can drag a mop over their place and emerge smelling of roses, then perhaps there's hope for us, too."

"'Bloodgate' was quite a hard thing to take," says Quins captain Chris Robshaw, who was named Premiership player of the year a month after the scandal broke. "But it was us against the rest of the country. Subconsciously or not, it drew us players together... in fact, everyone associated with the club."

'Bloodgate' is now firmly behind a Harlequins side who top the Premiership with 10 wins from 10 games. Photo: Getty

Quins director of rugby Conor O'Shea refers to the months that followed the scandal - which involved faking a blood injury to Tom Williams during a Heineken Cup match against Leinster - as a "period of mourning". But the Irish have never let a spot of hand-wringing get in the way of a good celebration and O'Shea's arrival at the club in March 2010 was just the pick-up Quins needed.

"Conor is probably the most positive man I've ever met," says Robshaw. "He's very good at lifting the spirits." But O'Shea is modest enough to concede that, while the place needed cheering up, the club was already in pretty good nick.

"Harlequins was already a brilliantly run club," says the former Leinster, London Irish and Ireland full-back. "There were great structures in place, really passionate, driven coaches and support staff. The club just made a mistake, so it was more a case of getting it back on the track it was already on."

Only seven of Quins' squad this season are not qualified to play for England, while 16 are 23 or younger. This is testimony to the work of Tony Diprose and Colin Osborne at their academy, as well as former director of rugby Dean Richards, who left the club in the wake of the 'Bloodgate' debacle.

Current first-team mainstays Mike Brown and Jordan Turner-Hall are academy graduates, spawn of a culture, as O'Shea puts it, of "growing your own people". Adds O'Shea: "I played for Leinster and grew up watching Munster - part of the 'passion of the parish', as we call in it Ireland. We may not have the budget of Toulouse but we have a heck of a lot of heart.

"When you grow up together you care about something passionately, you care about each other, and you deliver a little bit more. You think of the great sides in England - Wasps in their heyday, Leicester, Bath - they were predominantly home-grown sides. It makes a difference."

Nick Evans

New Zealander Nick Evans is arguably the best fly-half in the Premiership. Photo: Getty

Football pundit Alan Hansen was actually almost right when he said "you can't win anything with kids". Which is why O'Shea, in reality a realist, has a smattering of seasoned foreign talent in his ranks - including his very own Eric Cantona pulling strings at the Stoop, Kiwi fly-half Nick Evans.

"Nick is just an outstanding bloke," says O'Shea. "I'd pay to watch him train." Robshaw adds: "The great thing about Nick is that he is first out to training and last in, putting the extra practice in and making sure standards are driven very high, demanding more from others, especially the younger guys."

This unashamedly puritan work ethic is in stark contrast to that which existed, according to the so-called 'Twickileaks', in Martin Johnson's World Cup camp, where players who were perceived to be working too hard were lampooned by "immature" team-mates. Accurate or not, that is how it came across.

Meanwhile, another contributor to the leaked dossier expressed his dismay that back-row forward Robshaw, who along with Northampton's Tom Wood "had proved themselves to be the fittest, the strongest and played out of their skin in training", did not even make Johnson's final World Cup squad.

"[Robshaw's] is the sort of work ethic you want from a leader," says O'Shea. "Whether it's making a tackle or picking up the bottles or pads after a training session, Chris will do whatever it takes for the team.

"When you're an academy kid and you might have delusions of grandeur and you see your captain and potential England star doing those sorts of things, you tend to say 'if it's good enough for him, then it's good enough for me'.

"Chris doesn't have many weaknesses but if you tell him he has, he'll spend hours on end making sure that's not a weakness any more."

Robshaw mentions the word "sensible" a few times during our chat, in relation to the current vibe at the Stoop. Sensible may not be the sexiest word in sport, but getting hammered in nightclubs isn't sensible, jumping off ferries isn't sensible, and look where that got England in New Zealand. Robshaw might be just the sort of captain England need.

And so to Friday and Harlequins' crackerjack match-up against Toulouse, a fixture forged in Limerick via Cardiff by means of last season's Amlin Challenge Cup.

While Quins' league form last season was patchy, they qualified for the Heineken Cup by winning Europe's second-tier competition, beating Stade Francais in a thrilling final at the Cardiff City Stadium. However, it was the victory over Munster in the previous round, only the second time the Irish province had been beaten at Thomond Park in 42 European encounters, that was the spark.

"Winning the Amlin Cup was a big thing, confidence-wise," says O'Shea. "We lost so many games last season by less than a score, but players need tangible proof that what they are doing is right. The win against Munster was the day we really got our game on the pitch in its fullness."

Forget fullness, against four-times champions Toulouse, currently flying high in the French Top 14 and beaten only twice this season, Quins' game will need to blow the lid off and spray in all directions.

"We're not suddenly a great side if we manage to win, just as we're not a bad side if we lose," says O'Shea. "But for the club, the supporters and the players, this is where you want to be - Toulouse, on a Friday night at a packed Stoop. Could you ask for better?"

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Excellent blog yet again Ben.

    I'm glad to see at least 1 rugby person at the BBC isn't constantly praying for us to lose (Unlike a certain former Bath, England & Lions Centre).

    It has taken us a while to recover from "Bloodgate" and emerge from the shadow of Dean Richards. In 2008/2009 we were starting to become a more consistent team and our form (as well as reputation) really took a knock from the fall out after that incident.

    I don't hold it against Deano, he just wanted to win so badly he would do anything to ensure that it happened. But fortunately a lot of what he set up at the club in his time there has started to bear fruit and we are now genuine contenders in any match we play. The squad has a strong young english contingent and that can only bode well for the national team too. Fortunetaly there are enough old wise heads with Easter, Evans, Monye to ensure that the younger players have some guidence.

    As a huge Quins fan I can't wait for tomorrow night. I bought my tickets weeks ago, my dad and I intend to give the boys all my support from the stands.

    COME ON QUINS!!!!!

  • Comment number 2.

    Whilst not being a Quins fan, I have been seriously impressed with the improvement they have shown on last season, and it seems to be predominantly a mental one. They lost a large number of games last year by narrow margins, and so I think a great deal of credit has to go to Robshaw's leadership on the pitch this season.

    I would love to see Robshaw, Robson, Marler and Turner-Hall all given an opportunity during the Six Nations, and maybe Mike Brown becoming the understudy for Foden. Brown is the perfect example of the improving maturity of the Quins, in contrast to his rival for back-up 15, Delon Armitage. I remember watching Brown regularly losing his temper at the slightest provocation a couple of years back, and now he is running similar lines to Lee Byrne at his best, standing up in defence, and just getting on with playing the game in the right spirit. Good testament to the work of O'Shea and the ethos of the Quins.

    Saying all that, I still expect the Tigers to finish in the top four, and go on to win it. No bias at all of course.

  • Comment number 3.

    I hope Quins win, not because I'm a Quins supporter, but because I think they have got a core group of players that have worked hard to deserve these opportunities.

    The contrast in this blog only lays bare the sad indictment of the England regime. You can't make players more talented but you can make them fitter. For me Tom Woods exclusion - remember he missed the IRE game in the 6N - was beyond belief. If we need a foreign coach in order to start selecting the team on merit then so be it.

    As a blueprint for the attitude the England set-up should have they could do worse than to look at Robshaw and Wood. The only sour note for Quins - I'd pick Robshaw at 8 and let Easter play his spring rugby in the Stoop.

  • Comment number 4.

    Great blog Ben.

    Bloodgate lost us two years, whilst this season has been amazing so far we are just getting back to where we would have been without the scandal. As mentioned above, Richards put a lot of good structures in place and his role cannot be underestimated in making Quins what they are today. Conor has come in and really continued this good work and added more. We've seen this season what our youngsters can do, I don't like to single out players but Wallace and Matthews have come in when required and done an outstanding job.

    Last season was very frustrating for us as we played some good rugby but lacked that winning edge, we seemed to correct this in Thomond and Cardiff and have taken that confidence into this season.

    I think the HC may be a step too far with us this season, but if we don't make it through the groups the Amlin is a realistic target, especially with the final at the Stoop. Top 2 in the league is a must now so that we avoid an away semi final, if we get into the prem final at twickenham then it really will be anyone's game, no matter who we are playing.

    I've been a season ticket holder for a number of years and this is the most excited i've ever been about Quins, but we must keep reminding ourselves that we haven't won anything yet. 14 out of 14 will count for nothing if we don't have any silverware in May!

    Good luck to Conor and the boys tomorrow night!

  • Comment number 5.

    Nice blog Ben.

    Completely agree with post 1 that JG shows complete disregard for the Quins. It's not hard to see why people like JW criticise him.

    As for Quins i'm so impressed with the attitude of the players and coaching staff. Good old fashioned honest rugby played by players that are not encouraged to be arrogant.

    As for more players being in the England squad. I just hope that if they are they aren't left warming the bench because they could be winning games for us in the premiership instead. I fully apprecaite that only losing two peoople to the world cup helped us this year.

    Can't wait for Toulouse tomorrow and Sarries in Twickenham stadium later in the month!!

    God bless Nick Evans

  • Comment number 6.

    Good post Ben. I can only echo what's been put above. It's great that we're finally moving away from Bloodgate's long shadow but I do have the feeling we are just getting back to where we were then. Often forgotten is in the same year as bloodgate we beat Stade Francais (a club who's standing then was similar to Toulouse) home and away and finished 2nd in the premiership.

    Our continued success this year shows the world cup effect wasn't as big as it was made out to be at the time. OK we only lost 3 players to the tournament (Easter, Vallojos and Fa'auslavau sp.?) but at the same time we've had plenty of injuries Care would have been at the world cup, Skinner, Guest, Monye, Turner-Hall, Lowe etc. were all out as well. So it's not as if we had a full squad compared to the rest of the premiership.

    The final thing I guess is the commitment of the players. Brown has come on leaps and bounds in the last couple of years. Where as he used to be a very angry player he's now channelling that anger into his game and he is clearly one of the most committed and passionate players on the pitch.

  • Comment number 7.

    I'm glad to see at least 1 rugby person at the BBC isn't constantly praying for us to lose (Unlike a certain former Bath, England & Lions Centre).
    Agree Hookers, what is it with him, he even tipped Bath to beat us!!

  • Comment number 8.

    Interesting and constructive - thanks. What caught my eye were references to hard work and humility. Those are what England need - not drifters who think they have made it. And of course, coaches who pick on merit and can put together and sell (with passion but the courage to listen to the players) a game plan that the team has bought in to. It's never too complicated is it? Just do the simple things best.

  • Comment number 9.

    Good blog Ben.

    As a long time fan and former youth player for Quins I'm really enjoying this season after all the negative press that has come before. I suppose it will be some time until we can go through a season without Bloodgate getting a mention but that's the way of the world I guess.

    For those frustrated by Jerry Guscott's comments about Quins, to be fair to him I can understand why he has said what he has said. He sees Quins coming up against strong teams in the Premiership, teams that he thinks on paper are stronger and more experienced than Quins - and he thinks Quins' run won't last forever (seriously, how many of us expected to start the season with 14 wins from 14?) - which is why he predicts that Quins will lose. But he fails to take into account the spirit, belief and sense of togetherness at the club that just doesn't come out on a piece of paper, which is why he keeps on getting it wrong. I think that's as much a compliment to Quins as it is a criticism of Jerry.

    For my part I will be hoping and praying that Quins can get something from Friday, but Toulouse are a very strong side and if I was a betting man I'd be going with head over heart. But that doesn't mean I hate Quins - and I would LOVE IT if they proved me wrong.

  • Comment number 10.

    Ayupgeeza I think for the most part Guscott's comments are as you say. His comments on Robshaw's chances of getting into the England team (that Robshaw is good but as he sees it there are players of equal or better talent in his position) are justifiable. If he predicts us to lose at Franklin Gardens no argument. I think it's when he makes calls like last weeks when he strongly backed Wasps, not exactly on great form or with better players on paper, to beat us. OK a one off but it seems to be fairly regularly that he makes those calls often going against every other pundit I can find and the bookies. There is almost always a disbelief in Quins players as well (Easter and Care for England spring to mind) which is sometimes shared with others but I've never heard him once praise a Quins player as he will do for Sarries, Saints and especially any Bath player that shows a bit of spark. Maybe we're just being paranoid but it is something most Quins fans agree on.

  • Comment number 11.

    Firstly, bloody typical that Quins go on this run AFTER I leave the country! Grrr!

    The fruits of a successful academy are showing now. There have been regular starting roles for 9 academy graduates, including all the outside backs, for most of these 14 games. And then, people like Care and Casson were poached at a young age too.

    Seeing this team develop over the years is fantastic. Watching, for instance, Danny Care's passing get better and better (especially with Gommars alongside), or watching Chris Brooker's throwing turn from a liability into pretty decent is a fantastic indictment to what the coaches have acheived.

    The club has built a pretty strong, sound model of a club, both financially and in a rugby sense. There could be 6 Quins in the England 6Ns squad, which is some acheivment. Long may it continue. It is obvious that young English players are better than journeymen. No surprise that Newcastle are bottom with the worst EQP representation, while Quins are top with the best.

  • Comment number 12.

    "It has taken us a while to...emerge from the shadow of Dean Richards"

    ----------------------------------------

    I couldn't disagree more with this, and by the sounds of it neither could O'Shea. There is very little that has structurally changed at Quins since Richards' hugely successful stint - even down to the playing personnel - hence the comment about 'getting the club back on the track it had already rbeen on'. Richards is to blame for the bloodgate scandal and subsequent blip, but more importantly he is also responsible for most of the good things at Quins to this day.

    ...The sooner the big man's back in the game the better.

  • Comment number 13.

    Spot on Adam. Richards was responsible for the disgrace of Bloodgate but similarly he's responsible for creating the modern incarnation of Quins. It's two sides of the same coin.

    I think he's still got a little bit to serve on his global ban but I'm sure he'll be back. The problem is who will take him? On the one hand highly successful incredibly skilled coach on the other hand his disgrace will follow him where ever he goes.

  • Comment number 14.

    "it is one of the most sensational felonies of the decade."

    It became this because the Quins organisation ended up trying to protect the then team-doctor from being disbarred by the BMA. Yet another story of the cover-up becoming more important than the crime.

  • Comment number 15.

    I'm not sure that Richards didn't take more of a hit than he deserved in Bloodgate. There were plenty of parties involved and I'm not sure his portrayal as the architect in chief sits right with me.

    Shame - without Bloodgate I thought for a England MANAGER role he would have been perfect.

  • Comment number 16.

    If England are looking for Martyn Thomas' replacement they could do a lot worse than the one person that Ben doesn't refer to in this blog- Mark Evans. As Chief Exec he has brought Quins from a loss maker to a profitable club. The stadium has been redeveloped and Quins has lost the image of the "Barbour Brigade", exclusive club that it used to be.

    Conor O'Shea has some work ethic as well. During the World Cup, he was doing studio analysis for the Irish national broadcaster, RTE. So early one Saturday morning I was watching him discussing Ireland Vs. Australia with Tom McGurk in the Dublin studios. Then on Saturday evening he was giving a post-match interview for Quins in Twickenham after having just thumped Gloucester by forty odd points. My only thoughts were, God he must be knackered!!!

  • Comment number 17.

    It must be bittersweet for Deano to see his work come to fruition. I was hugely disappointed by the Bloodgate affair, despite its comic potential, and was saddened that an old hero was was laid low! Hopefully there will soon be room back in the English game to accommodate Dean Richards in a meaningful role.

    Well done Quins (slightly gritted teeth...being a Bath man, although I can't stand a certain former Bath and England centre myself), you are the team of the moment and have some great young players. Let's hope that England take the opportunity to experiment with some new talent over the next two seasons. Hopefully the "same old same old" selection policy will be a thing of the past and we can try out some new guys while not too much is expected.

    Chris Robshaw is a great young player, although for me, Tom Wood shades it. Pity that they're both open siders. The "vote for Robshaw as Captain" stuff that's doing the rounds is a bit annoying though. He,and Quins fans, should beware! The same cheerleading pundits will the first to stick the steel toe-caps into his ribs once he's in post.

  • Comment number 18.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 19.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 20.

    Like most of the comments above, I thought/think that Dean Richards was a great coach/manager. Had the blood scandal (I hate calling everything ...gate) not happened then I think he would have become England manager when Jonno came in and I think that we would be in a different state across the road.

    As for who would take him. I tend to look at players and managers and say, "what would I think if it was announced that he had signed for us?" In his case I would be delighted.

    I have always enjoyed watching Quins as a neutral and they are a great example of how to breed you own, have English players and add a few very good foreigners. The signing of Nick Evans has to be one of the coups of the last decade. 2nd best fly half in the world and you won't lose him for one international game!!!

    Good blog.

  • Comment number 21.

    Hi Ben - great blog but Quins beat Stade at the Cardiff City Stadium not the Millennium Stadium ;-)

  • Comment number 22.

    #13, I would imagine there will be plenty of takers when Richards becomes available. As with Matt Stevens, once he has served his ban, there is no reason why he shouldn't return.

    #17 It is certainly the case that if Robshaw makes it into the England team and fails, there will be a long queue of people waiting to put the boot in, but that is the nature of top level sport, and applies to whoever gets the job.

    What stands out when I have sen Robshaw is that he is a natural leader. Given that in the last world cup there was no hint of leadership on or off the pitch, then England could do a lot worse.

    Given the mess England were in on and off the field in NZ, it is very clear that England need to make some big changes - a few tweaks to the starting XV plus the return of the usual suspects is just not going to cut it.

  • Comment number 23.

    #22: I totally agree with regards to the starting 15, although to be fair I haven't heard anyone call for a retention of the World Cup core. Those who have been describing English rugby as being in meltdown are thankfully misinformed. The national team and board yes, but we have some extremely promising youngsters performing in the Premiership (and Europe). It should be a case of cementing the few who must stay (Tuilagi, Coles, Lawes) and then looking at future partnerships (the back row and another centre for example). To make sure this ties in with the blog, refer back to my first comment regarding the exciting, in-form prospects playing for the club top of the Prem. Let's hope Stuart Lancaster breaks the trend and picks the players who are on form now, not five years ago.

  • Comment number 24.

    Thank you Ben. I'm a die hard Sarrie but the Quins response one the last 3 years is something to behold. Just a shame to see Dimbleby's attitude to women's sport this evening after a superb series win over the ABs

  • Comment number 25.

    Ben. Good blog. You say about the blood incident; "It is only rugby, but in sporting terms it is one of the most sensational felonies of the decade"

    It was very stupid, but the real felony of that period was the drug fueled players of Bath whose, in my opinion, much worse crime, was overshadowed by the media pantomime about "bloodgate"

    Pity no non-playing staff took a hit about that, I can't imagine they didn't know.

    Quins this season and late last season are the epitomy of what rugby should be about.

  • Comment number 26.

    When rebuilding a team it helps to be able to introduce (probably) the 2nd best fly half in world rugby. Any New Zealanders with English grandparents coming through the ranks?!

  • Comment number 27.

    On a football note, don't you think UEFA should follow Rugby's rule and give the Europa league winner a slot in the Champions League?

  • Comment number 28.

    For those wondering Richards has about 7/8 months left on his ban, i.e., he had a 3 year ban to serve. Therefore we could see him back in a coaching role next season. I for one hope he is back sooner rather than later (although I'd still want Quins to beat whoever he takes on!).

  • Comment number 29.

    England need a disciplinarian... Surely Deano is that man!?

  • Comment number 30.

    George Clancy already ruining the game

 

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