Paul Gustard’s Defensive Expertise the Key to Harlequins’ Prospects

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GUILDFORD, ENGLAND - JULY 19: The Harlequins Head of Rugby, Paul Gustard gives instructions during a Harlequins training session at Surrey Sports Park on July 19, 2018 in Guildford, England. (Photo by Steve Bardens/Getty Images for Harlequins)

The slow decline of Harlequins following their Premiership title win in 2012 continued with a dismal showing last season. The poor form of the Twickenham-based side led to a tenth-placed finish and the removal of Director of Rugby John Kingston. Yet despite a forgettable season, an air of optimism has been reinstalled at the Stoop since the arrival of Paul Gustard.

Defensive improvement required

The capture of England defence coach Paul Gustard has signalled a true break from the Conor O’Shea era which lingered following the internal promotions of Kingston and Mark Mapletoft.

Most importantly, Harlequins’ defence – at best porous, and at worst lacking in organisation and commitment – now has the best defensive coach in the country at its helm. Assuming Gustard can implement a defence vaguely akin to that he honed at Saracens and with England, a much improved season should await Harlequins.

Quick Tempo Will Unleash Attacking Talent

Quins’ attack stuttered at points last season. It was far from fluent on a number of outings against the more dominant sides in the Premiership. But the unearthing of creative spark Marcus Smith ignited the attack on occasions. On the basis of last season, the key to the Harlequins’ attack is scrum-half Danny Care.

His ability generate a quick tempo and to create from nothing made the difference at times. Notably with an outstanding creative kicking display against Sale Sharks at the Stoop. Without Care, who will be away for considerable chunks of the season assuming he regains a place in Eddie Jones’ plans, Harlequins often looked like a blunt instrument.

Traditionally Harlequins’ attack has looked potent when they generate quick ball. Fundamental to securing this is the ability to get over the gain line. The Harlequins pack looks a little light of dynamic ball carriers.

The brunt of the responsibility will fall on Kyle Sinckler, James Chisholm and whoever dons the number eight shirt whether it be Jack Clifford, Renaldo Bothma or even Matt Luamanu.

A point of difference this season could be having a fully fit Francis Saili who added real power to the back line when he was available. Equally the arrival of Nick Auterac will add some strong carrying from loosehead prop.

Unbalanced Squad Could Be Costly

The squad that Harlequins have assembled looks unbalanced. Extremely strong in some positions, lacking in quality in others. This variety can be seen in the forwards especially. Quins’ possess one of the best stables of loosehead props in the league with Joe Marler, Auterac, Lewis Boyce and Mark Lambert.

But in the position packing down next to them, Harlequins are severely lacking. Dave Ward is excellent around the park but his throwing wavers at crucial moments. Injury hampered Rob Buchanan is yet to develop on early promise whilst the talented Elia Elia is young and inexperienced. Harlequins remain a top class hooker, and another second-row to support James Horwill and Matt Symons, away from a truly formidable pack.

Strength in the Back Division

In the backs, the fly-half position provides real strength. The flair and creative skills of Smith are complemented by the more conservative and experienced Demetri Catrakilis. The South African’s kicking game comes into its own during the wet winter months. The acquisition of Ben Tapuai provides a variety of stylistic options in the centres. The competition will be Saili, Scottish international James Lang, the consistent Joe Marchant and former NFL player Paul Lasike.

Harlequins’ back three could go either way. If Mike Brown and Tim Visser find form, Charlie Walker continues on his upwards curve and the immensely talented Nathan Earle fulfils his potential with the increased game time he will receive, then Harlequins will be dangerous.

Throw into the mix England U20 star Gabriel Ibitoye and the elusive footwork of Alofa Alofa and this could be an area of real strength. Yet with Brown and Visser ageing, Walker’s tendency to struggle to influence matches in wet conditions, and Earle and Ibitoye currently unproven, it is far from guaranteed that this will be an area of strength for Quins.

A comparison to the back three depth of Saracens, Wasps and more realistic rivals Bath and Sale reveals relative mediocrity.

Top Six the Aim

Ultimately the biggest influence on changing Harlequins’ fortunes will be Gustard and his new coaching staff including forwards coach Alex Codling. The implementation of a quality defensive system which Quins’ have long been lacking must be the aim. If that goal can be achieved, Harlequins’ attack has enough quality to win games this year.

A return to the top six and the prize of qualification to the Champions Cup should be the aim in the first year of a new era of Harlequins rugby. But in a league where the calibre of player is increasing across the board, Gustard’s men have an enormous challenge on their hands.

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