Ugo Monye: Smart man giving Quins that title look
The Premiership semi-final gives the snappy dressers a chance to match their undoubted style with some real success, as the Londoners' long-serving wing tells Chris Hewett
Ambling contentedly towards the VIP car park after another rollicking victory in front of a packed house at The Stoop, the elongated second-row forward Nick Kennedy was kitted out in his standard-issue Harlequins jacket, complete with velvet collar – the kind of thing Nigel Farage might consider fetching, if not exactly a vote-winner, and suspiciously suggestive of the club's old style-over-substance days. "Don't you like it?" Kennedy asked. "Blame Ugo Monye. He's the one responsible for the design."
Monye sees himself as something of a fashionista – not so very long ago, he organised a catwalk event at the Playboy Club in Mayfair – and under interrogation on the charge of grievous bodily harm to haute couture, he was resolutely unapologetic. "Everyone at Quins wears those jackets, from the office staff to the academy players," he said. "I'm quite proud of that: do you have the first idea how difficult it is to come up with something that suits John Kingston as well as Danny Care?"
Head coach Kingston is not assembled in quite the same way – certainly not in the same proportions – as England scrum-half Care, so it was a good point powerfully made. But those two contrasting figures have this much in common: Harlequins would not be where they are, lording it at the top end of the domestic game after three outstanding seasons in succession and firmly established as a trophy-hunting concern, without their input. And the same can be said for Monye himself. Indeed, it is reasonable to wonder whether anyone, including the rugby director Conor O'Shea and the captain Chris Robshaw, has given more to the cause.
No current player has put in a longer shift at The Stoop than the wing from Islington, who, after an eye-catching schoolboy career in track and field, agreed professional terms with Quins in 2002. He is, therefore, uniquely qualified to assess what has happened to the club in the years since his arrival and explain how it is that the pastel-shaded pushovers of yore have reinvented themselves as a side so difficult to beat that this afternoon's Premiership semi-final visit to Saracens, who barely know what it is to lose on their plastic pitch in north London, is less than a foregone conclusion.
"When I arrived," Monye says, "the Quins name – the brand, if you want to call it that – was a big deal, but the rugby we played didn't do justice to the image. The best thing people said about us was that we were a good cup side.
"In my first year, I remember us going to Wasps, who were on a 13-game winning streak, and beating them. Why did we win that game? Because we didn't command the respect of our opponents, and when you're not respected you can always pull a surprise victory out of the bag.
"But that was the trouble. We were an every-now-and-again kind of team... and it was bitterly frustrating.
"What changed? There were many contributory factors, but the big thing was relegation. When we finished bottom of the Premiership in 2005 – the year after we won the European Challenge Cup, which tells you all you need to know about the kind of side we were – everything was stripped down and laid bare.
"Yes, we managed to keep our squad together: I remember our captain at the time [the Springbok flanker Andre Vos] committing himself to getting us back up, and that was an important statement of intent. But in terms of our approach to our work, in terms of the way we thought about ourselves, there was a complete transformation. It was a terrible shock to us, being relegated. I also think it was the best thing that ever happened to us.
"I say that because the year we spent outside the Premiership was the year we found our identity – the year we worked out how we wanted to play our rugby. What we discovered about ourselves then has stayed with us: coaches and players have come and gone but there is a continuity to life at Harlequins that keeps us tight and gives us a clear idea of what we're trying to achieve.
"Since coming back up, we've had two things going for us: the courage of our convictions and a determination to enjoy ourselves regardless of the circumstances. It's why the Chris Robshaws and Danny Cares, the Mike Browns and Joe Marlers, can return here after a long spell away with England and be so driven in everything they do. Internationals don't always go back to their teams and perform with such energy and focus. It only happens when the people concerned really love their club. There are a lot of players here who don't want to be anywhere else."
The men in charge as the Londoners embarked on their rebuilding project nine years ago were Mark Evans, the chief executive, and Dean Richards, who was recruited as rugby director a few weeks after relegation was confirmed. The way Monye tells it, Evans was the architect of the new Quins – "he was the one with the vision, the one who came up with ideas of how we could reach our potential, both as a team and a business" – while Richards opened up the soft underbelly of the side and lined it with reinforced steel.
The fake-blood scandal of 2009 would end the latter's career at The Stoop and the fallout very nearly did for the tormented Evans too, yet it is barely possible to imagine these recent seasons in the sun without their contributions.
A dozen years ago, when Monye first pitched up at the behest of Colin Osborne (then the club's age-group coach, now the skills coach at elite level), Quins had finished in the bottom third of the Premiership table in each of the three previous campaigns. In the last three, they have been top four all the way, winning a first title in 2012, pushing Leicester hard in last year's semi-final and making this year's play-offs in exhilarating style, playing what has amounted to knockout rugby since late March and piecing together a five-match winning run under extreme pressure. If they can just find a way of finishing it off by beating Saracens and then reclaiming the prize at Twickenham a fortnight tomorrow, their most experienced player will probably cry like a baby.
"That first title was something I'll always treasure, but to win a second one under these circumstances would be the greatest achievement of my Quins career, 100 per cent," Monye says. "Two months ago we were given zero chance of making the play-offs. Those of us at the club were the only ones who thought differently, and people laughed in our faces.
"They're patting us on the back now. But we haven't won anything yet, have we? All we've managed to do is subject ourselves to an extra week of training.
"I hope this doesn't sound arrogant, but we believe we should be in the play-offs each season because we know we're a top-four side. What's important is the step beyond that. We won't be happy with anything less than the title."
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