The Kiwi who missed the World Cup to put Quins top
Former All Black Evans has brought touch of class to a mainly young and English side's flying start
Saturday 29 October 2011
There have been happier resumptions of domestic league duties in England after the global Lord Mayor Show of the World Cup.
The week after the 2003 final, for instance, when Jonny Wilkinson paraded the gleaming Webb Ellis Cup to the four corners of a sold-out Kingston Park – before putting his feet up to watch Newcastle play Wasps.
Still, while the Rugby Football Union are stuck in Fagin mode about the future direction of the national side – they are reviewing the situation – the multi-coloured Harlequins are bringing a bit of brightness to the English club game.
Conor O'Shea's side – predominantly English-qualified and academy reared – won six matches out of six on the domestic league front while the world was focused on events in the Land of the Long White Cloud. They sit on top of the Aviva Premiership with 26 points already in the bag, and a momentum that augurs well.
They have not made such a prolonged flying start to a season since the 1996-97 campaign in what was then known as Courage League National One – and with a team that was officially called NEC Harlequins.
On that occasion, too, they opened with a string of six victories. They fell at the seventh hurdle, losing 24-13 at Sale. Then it all fell apart. Quins faded to third behind Wasps and Bath and Dick Best lost his job as director of rugby.
This time they are on home ground as they look to sidestep a seventh-match hitch. They will also have New Zealand's second best outside-half directing operations when they face Exeter at the Twickenham Stoop this afternoon.
At the 2007 World Cup, Nick Evans was the All Black shadow to Dan Carter for the pivotal No 10 role. While Graham Henry and the New Zealand hierarchy were struggling to find stand-ins for their stricken first-choice stand-off at the home World Cup just gone, Evans was showing his enduring class in the English Premiership. The man from North Shore lines up against Exeter with 86 points to his name this season.
Naturally, the 31-year-old must be wondering what might have been had he decided to stick at home and play second-fiddle to Carter – a role he passed on to the soon-to-be-Bath-bound Stephen Donald, who fell out of favour before being summoned from a fishing trip and ending up hooking the World Cup with what proved to be the match-winning penalty in the 8-7 win against France last Sunday.
Evans won the last of his 16 caps as a replacement in the quarter-final defeat against the French in Cardiff four years ago. When he was overlooked for the 2008 Tri-Nations series he made the decision to move to Europe – and cut his ties with the All Blacks.
Henry having installed a policy of keeping overseas players in exile, it was the point of no return with regard to the 2011 World Cup. That much was re-emphasised when Carl Hayman, the world's best tighthead prop, was kept out in the cold when he chose to move from Newcastle to Toulon instead of returning home.
For his part, O'Shea is happy to have Evans at the hub of a dynamic youthful side gathering promising momentum. "You always want your players like Nick Evans," the former Ireland full-back and RFU academy director said. "They bring a different influence to the group.
"There is not an egotistical bone in Nick's body. If you ask someone to carry a tackle bag or pick up a bottle, he will be first and the work he has put in with Rory Clegg [his 21-year-old understudy] is invaluable. By and large the drive for this club is to grow its own players, to recruit English players where we can, and to keep the squad together over a long period of time. That's what brought success to Bath. That's what brought success to Leicester."
Bath might not be the force they once were but between 1989 and 1996 they won six Premiership titles. Leicester have won a record nine. Quins have yet to lift the trophy. They have never even made the playoff final across the Chertsey Road at HQ.
Whether they can do so this time round remains to be seen. It is only O'Shea's second full season in charge at the Stoop since being installed as the long-term successor to Dean Richards in the protracted aftermath of the Bloodgate affair.
Last season, O'Shea's young guns finished shy of the playoffs in seventh place but ended with a trophy-winning flourish, lifting the Amlin Challenge Cup after claiming the scalp of Munster in a semi-final and beating Stade Français in a dramatic final. That sprint finish earned them a Heineken Cup spot with home and away pool games to come against Toulouse in December.
"Last season, we lost a lot of tight games by the odd point or two," O'Shea said. "We are a year older now and a year wiser. The players realise how hard they have to work for their wins now."
This afternoon, Quins will be going for Premiership win number seven with Nick Easter back from England World Cup duty, slotting back at No 8 with Chris Robshaw alongside him on the blindside flank and the impressive young Luke Wallace on the openside.
Then there is their trophy-winning Kiwi outside-half. Evans was named Premiership Player of the Month for September.
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