David Flatman: Leicester and Quins can both play against type
From the Front Row
Sunday 20 May 2012
Next weekend's Premiership final sees two cultures collide. In a sense, on whichever side of rugby's fence you sit there is a team for you to support.
Leicester, in their eighth straight final, exude workmanlike grit. They are known as the team with no frills and they are a group of men who feel a hissing disdain for the new-fangled white-boot brigade. Harlequins are the posh boys of West London. Traditionally with the odd roughneck interspersed among brogue-shod future bankers, they have always been seen as a softer touch.
Up to a point, this is a load of tosh. Nobody would ever deny that Leicester breed hard men and have been perhaps the most consistently abrasive of all English teams. But, and it feels almost blasphemous to say it, they do have frills. The hard men have not gone soft, but have developed perhaps the most complete attacking game in the country.
Their pack remains as powerful as ever and it rarely fails to put the back line on the front foot. But what they do with this quality ball is now genuinely threatening. They kick intelligently, they use Horacio Agulla and Alesana Tuilagi as weapons all over the field and they are adept at finding Manu Tuilagi and Geordan Murphy in the wide channels where defenders want to see them least. They are accurate, considered and hugely potent. Frilly indeed.
But it is the Quins who have, under the guidance of Conor O'Shea, metamorphosed into an entirely fresh entity. Danny Care has always been tough for front-five forwards to deal with around the fringes and in Nick Evans and Mike Brown they have players who offer two of any coach's list of dream attributes: the ability to do something magical and an extremely low error count. The latter is probably what makes them so indispensable in the eyes of O'Shea.
Where the question marks really hung were over the head of their scrummage and, simply, their level of nastiness – that is, brutal, explosive running of cutting lines, ferociousness in the tackle and venomous clearing of rucks.
Mo Fa'asavalu hits the ball – and his opponents – like a wrecking ball. Nick Easter knows a bit about challenging defences too, and seems impossible to stop behind the gain line. He also has the skill level and confidence to set his team-mates free by any means. The best No 8 in the country, he is in the form of his life.
As for their scrum, it has undergone the most stunning restoration I have ever seen in one season. James Johnston, the enormous tighthead, is the most penalised man in the league because, put bluntly, their scrum got shoved around early in the season and he was roundly blamed. Joe Marler, too, found his prowess at the set piece being called into question. What he needed was coaching and game time. He has received both.
This season Quins have stuck together – partly through lack of resources but primarily because that seems to be their way. They have been expertly coached by John Kingston and, most importantly, they have bought into what they all knew they could achieve as a pack. This bred belief and solidarity and never was it evidenced so crushingly as last weekend when, in the semi-final, they demolished Northampton, possessors of perhaps the most potent scrummage in Europe.
Nobody will deny that Quins are the go-to club for the chino-wearer, but there is a new hardness, a new menace. They are cosmopolitan gaggle, but together they make a nice fit. If any team can overcome Leicester's time-honed, muscular suffocation it is the posh boys of West London.
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