Quins flourish by playing the generation game
London club hope home-grown talent will graduate with honours against Leicester
It is devilishly difficult to be nice about the Premiership fraternity or their craven allies at the Rugby Football Union after the cringingly crass rejection of London Welsh as promotion candidates – a decision that deserves to be tested in a court of law and cries out to be found wanting. Yet on the eve of this season's club final at Twickenham, it is still possible to laud Harlequins, those arch-traditionalists of old, for operating at the cutting edge of the English game.
If their rugby director Conor O'Shea is reluctant to make bold statements about his pack's ability to match the brute strength and iron technique of Leicester at close quarters tomorrow – "I think our front-rowers are growing as a unit, but if I say anything more you know that Richard Cockerill will pin the press cutting on the dressing room wall and say, 'look at this'," he remarked this week, referring to his bullet-headed opposite number – the captain and back-row forward Chris Robshaw was more than happy to talk about the virtues of collective experience.
"I think probably half the players who will start this final came through the Quins academy and that means a lot," said the England captain, himself a product of the youth set-up at the Stoop. "To find ourselves playing in an occasion like a Premiership final... it's what we all dreamt of doing when we started out. I think it will be a powerful motivating force for us."
Until recently, the Wasps academy was ahead of the game: indeed, Rob Smith's outstanding work at the club's Acton training base was a crucial contributory factor to the golden run of the mid-2000s. If the former champions are still producing top-notch talent – Joe Launchbury, Sam Jones, Billy Vunipola and Elliott Daly were among those most responsible for protecting Wasps' top-flight status this term – they have since been joined by the likes of Gloucester and Saracens.
And then there is the Quins academy, which is just about as productive as it gets right now. Not only has it spawned such first-team regulars as the full-back Mike Brown, the centres George Lowe and Jordan Tuner-Hall, the prop Joe Marler, the lock George Robson and the head honcho Robshaw, it is in the process of propelling a whole new generation of high-calibre talent into England's age-group teams – especially at Under-20 level, where the club has a particularly strong presence.
Leicester, for all the ruthlessness of their scouting operation, are having a leaner time of it in terms of channelling talent into the first team. Only one of tomorrow's likely starting pack, the purple-patch prop Dan Cole, came up through the Welford Road system: the rest either made their names elsewhere in the Premiership – George Chuter, Geoff Parling, George Skivington – or were drafted in from the southern hemisphere.
And if the Tigers can take credit for developing the contrasting back-line talents of Ben Youngs, George Ford and Manu Tuilagi (not to mention the long-serving skipper Geordan Murphy, who joined the club as a teenager), they remain heavily dependant on recruits of the fully-fledged variety in that area, too.
According to O'Shea, the academy route is the road to follow. "The enjoyment that comes from winning with your friends is a huge part of life," he said at the start of the season. "It's different from buying success. That can be done, but we want to build a team that will grow together."
Have they grown enough over the course of the season? We will find out tomorrow, when a full house of 82,000-plus congregates around the old cabbage patch for the 10th of these Premiership showpieces.
According to Cockerill, the Midlanders' desire to lift the trophy has never been greater, and if he is right, they will be terribly difficult to beat. But this much is certain: Quins are stronger this year than they were last, and will be stronger again next term. The kids will ensure it.
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