Grizzled ex-Lion sharpens teeth of Harlequins

Harlequins 14 Gloucester 9
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Twenty years ago in Wallaby country, Dean Richards and Mike Teague formed two-thirds of a Lions back-row combination so magnificently intimidating in their physicality that the Australians lost both the fight and the Test series, along with their self-confidence, their self-respect and their marbles, not necessarily in that order. The old ruffians-in-arms met up for a beer or seven at the Stoop on Saturday night, and whatever form their discussion took, they must have agreed on one thing: namely, that this rugby lark ain’t what it used to be.

“Iron Mike” would certainly have struggled to recall a time when the words “Gloucester” and “generosity” could be bracketed together in all seriousness, rather than in the name of extreme irony. (The West Countrymen were rather less than charitable in his day, although some of those in the Kingsholm Shed defined charity as their team’s occasional allowing of an opposition forward to leave town on the team bus, rather than by ambulance). And Richards? He could not, during his long playing career with Leicester, have encountered too many Harlequins teams whose principal virtues included fibre, fortitude and a seemingly unbreakable collective spirit.

If Gloucester’s munificence was there for all to see at the weekend – their selfless refusal to profit from clear match-winning opportunities at the last knockings was enough to earn them a private reception at some royal residence up the road – there was a defiance about the home side that reinforced the increasingly popular notion that they have found themselves a backbone. Richards, now in his fourth season as Harlequins director of rugby, has somehow created an air of togetherness that might be recognised, and indeed respected, at Welford Road itself.

“I put a lot of it down to Will Skinner, who has been fantastic for us as captain,” the Great Shambling Bear said when asked about this resilient streak. It was a fair point. Skinner worked like a Trojan on Saturday – had he not, the Gloucester open-side flanker Andy Hazell would have wreaked even more havoc at the breakdown – and he is fast establishing himself as one of the more effective loose forwards in the Premiership, small as he is. But Richards said something else, almost in the same breath, that went even closer to the heart of the matter.

“The players have a great understanding of what they’re trying to do on the field, and they’ve all bought into what we’re trying to achieve as a club,” he said. Compare that clarity of vision and ambition to the murk surrounding the current England set-up and it is all the more astonishing that the Rugby Football Union installed Martin Johnson, rather than Richards, as national manager a little over a year ago. Johnson, a great player with no body of off-field work behind him? Or Richards, a great player with a whole history of achievement as a back-room operator, including consecutive European titles? Perhaps the governing body simply got their Titans mixed up.

This victory was not the end of the world for Gloucester – take a look at the table – but it meant the earth to Quins, who now stand an excellent chance of a place in the play-offs, from where anything might happen. Only two tries were scored during a tourniquet-tight contest that occasionally hinted at the best Premiership rugby has to offer, and both of them went to the Londoners: a side-stepping, 70-metre exercise in virtuosity courtesy of Nick Evans, the former All Black outside-half, and a route-one, five-metre example of brute determination from the wing Tom Williams, all 14st of him.

Williams’ score may ultimately define Gloucester’s season. When, a couple of minutes before the end of normal time, Chris Malone hoisted a high kick on the visiting defence, the ball appeared to go forward off a Harlequin hand – a misdemeanour that went unspotted by the officials. Rory Lawson, the Gloucester scrum-half, did well to clear up the flotsam and jetsam with a minimum of fuss, but he then kicked out on the full to concede a line-out in a perilous position. Chris Robshaw, the very definition of tirelessness, claimed possession at the back, Ugo Monye made important ground in the heavy traffic and, after a series of furious rucks, the winning points were duly secured.

It confirmed Dean Ryan, the Gloucester coach, in his suspicion that when it comes to close games, basic errors are the rule among his players, not the exception. “The last thing I want is for us to be a kicking side rather than a running side,” he said, “but we have to understand the importance of protecting ourselves. We know we’re a good team: we’re competitive away from home, we’re competitive even when we have two academy lads in the back division; we’re competitive in the face of Six Nations call-ups. There’s no question of us not being able to play rugby. But we keep putting ourselves under unnecessary pressure by not being smart, especially when it comes to kicking. It’s a collective thing and it’s hurting us.”

Gloucester could, and probably should, have won regardless. Ryan called Apo Satala off the bench, and within an instant the Fijian romped clear to set up a position a few metres short of the Quins line with overlaps available on either side. The next 45 seconds or so were truly horrible for the West Countrymen: first, James Simpson-Daniel, of all people, cut the wrong line on Adam Eustace and crowded out the space towards the left corner, knocking on in the process; second and third, Lawson butchered passes with the goal-line beckoning.

“They were snapshot moments, and you can’t gauge a whole performance on those,” Ryan said, defensively. Unfortunately for him, they might one day be seen as a snapshot of his side’s entire campaign.

Harlequins: Tries Evans, Williams; Cons Evans, Malone. Gloucester: Pens Barkley 3.

Harlequins: M Brown (U Monye, 56); D Strettle, G Tiesi, J Turner-Hall, T Williams; N Evans (C Malone, h-t), A Gomarsall (J Poluleuligaga, 63); C Jones, G Botha, M Ross, O Kohn (J Evans, 52), G Robson, C Robshaw, W Skinner (capt), T Guest.

Gloucester: I Balshaw; C Sharples, H Trinder (A Allen, 43), O Barkley, J Simpson-Daniel; C Spencer (R Lamb, 65), R Lawson; N Wood, A Titterrell (O Azam, 50), G Somerville, M Bortolami (A Eustace, 50), A Brown, L Narraway, A Hazell (A Satala, 81), G Delve (capt).

Referee: D Pearson (Northumberland).