Quins show England the way
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."
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?"