We don’t often cover rugby on this site but, and it’s a big but, Harlequins are Twickenham’s top flight team and in the last few years under the direction of Conor O’Shea the club has achieved some notable success including winning their first (and only) Aviva Premiership title in 2012. Now O’Shea’s leaving the club and heading to Italy, times are changing and we felt it was worth paying tribute to the man and the success he brought to The Stoop. Occasional twickerati roving reporter and big Quins fan Bill Webb-Ellis looks back on the O’Shea era and ponders on what the future may bring…
With the reduced, ‘de-funned’ (for which read, de-deathed due to excessive drinking) London 7s last weekend, as well as the Aviva Premiership semi-finals taking place, the players at Harlequins were busy posting photos of themselves in Cannes on Instagram. Their coach for the past six years however may well be ruing his send off the previous Friday night in the European Challenge Cup Final.
With 80 minutes played and trailing by seven points, Quins had possession in their own half, if they could get a converted try, they could take the game to extra time. The ball came to flyhalf, Ben Botica, who inexplicably kicked it up field, giving possession to Montpellier who carried it out to win the match and the cup. Botica had already signed to play for Montpellier next season, and the conspiracy theorists had a field day. In truth, the game had been lost in the previous 80 minutes with Harlequins out-muscled by Jake White’s strong South African bolstered side, unrecognisable from the team that Harlequins put 41 points past at home in November 2015.
Conor O’Shea arrived at Quins in March 2010 among the embers from Bloodgate, and took over from caretaker coach John Kingston after Dean Richards resigned and was then banned from rugby for three years. O’Shea won 35 caps for his country as a stylish full-back and had played, captained, coached, been Director of Rugby and even Managing Director of London Irish, before working for the RFU as Director of Regional Academies and then National Director of the English Institute of Sport.
In O’Shea’s first full season, he took Harlequins to victory over Munster at Thomand Park in a Challenge Cup semi-final, becoming only the second club to beat the Irish province at home in a European Competition. In the final, Quins beat Stade Français with a last-minute try from Argentinian wing Gonzo Comacho, sent through the French side’s defence by a grubber from Danny Care; the conversion by Nick Evans gave them the cup by a point, 19–18 at the Cardiff City Stadium.
The confidence that came from the cup win after the lows and humiliation from the season before brought about a new Quins’ style. O’Shea held a summit with his four coaches as to what was needed to move on. The words and phrases that cropped up were leadership, culture, empowering players, discipline, and the response was immediate. In the 2011–12 season, Harlequins won their first 10 premiership games before losing to Saracens at Twickenham in the Big Game 4. A home playoff semi-final against Northampton Saints saw a 14-man maul go over the line for Joe Marler to score the winning try and secure a 25-23 victory.
On the 26 May 2012 came O’Shea’s finest moment at Harlequins. At the Premiership final at Twickenham in front of an 81,779 crowd, Quins won their first Aviva Premiership title with a score of 30–23 over Leicester Tigers. Tom Williams and Chris Robshaw scored the tries and Nick Evans scored 20 points through penalties and a conversion; Robshaw was named man of the match. No pre-celebratory t-shirts had been printed and the post-match party was Quins fans streaming back across the A316 to the Stoop to see their team address them from the main stand.
The next season was one of highs and lows. Securing a place in the European Champions Cup through the Premiership title, Quins came through their pool games to face Munster at home. The Irish fans mobbed the Stoop, with many season tickets holders selling their seats for a quick profit. The stands were a sea of red and Quins supporters were outnumbered in their own stadium. Harlequins lost 12-18 in a tetchy match. In the Premiership, the team secured a playoff place to Leicester at Welford Road and lost there as well.
Harlequins had better fortune with their academy players winning the A-league title, and stripped of their internationals, Quins progressed through the Anglo-Welsh Cup to the final against Sale at the Sixways Stadium, beating them 31-14 and gaining O’Shea silverware for the third consecutive season.
Sadly, that was the last of the titles Harlequins would win with Conor. Despite making the playoffs for the third season (losing away to Saracens), Quins had little fortune in the 2013–14 season, and less in 2014–15 with no playoff place, and knocked out of the Champions Cup at the pool stages. None of the academy players who won the Anglo-Welsh title has progressed to an England cap. The confidence built on success seems to have ebbed away and Harlequins fast, off-loading style that saw them flood through opposition defences has all but disappeared. Other teams have progressed whether through salary cap infringements to pay top class internationals or through a faster, more physical style of rugby.
This season saw internationals Jamie Roberts, Tim Visser and James Horwill come into the squad to bolster Quins and help them compete against this new style. But Quins have descended into ‘girl with a curl’ play. Their defensive game has arguably suffered the worst, exemplified by an excruciating display against Exeter Chiefs for the last match of this season. Chiefs put 62 points past the Twickenham team to record their worst defeat at home in the professional era — hardly a fitting way to send off their most successful Director of Rugby.
Next season, former Quins’ player John Kingston takes over as DoR, having retained a position as Head Coach under three successive Directors. Many fans are despondent that an experienced international coach wasn’t brought in to replace O’Shea. It will be interesting to see if Bruce Craig’s money can lure a big name to Bath now that they have parted company with Mike Ford.
Harlequins will be hoping for a change in fortune, not only on the pitch, but in the form of the mini-bond they have released in an attempt to raise £7.5 million to “invest in the Club, take us to new levels and to continue to stay ahead of the game as it grows,” according to Club CEO, David Ellis. Supporters will certainly be hoping that the investment takes the club to new levels, but will be surprised to hear that they are ahead of the game while remaining firmly mid-table for the past two seasons. With a coupon of 5.5% over five years, unsecured, it will be interesting to see if the Club manages to raise the money it needs to compete at the highest levels of the game.
Your faithful correspondent is a season ticket holder at Harlequins and has been lucky enough to see each of the team’s and Conor’s winning title matches live; and sadly, the losing final just over a week ago in Lyon. I can’t thank Conor enough for what he has done for the Club and I wish him all the best with his new career coaching the Italian national team.
Words: Bill Webb-Ellis
Pics: Bill Webb-Ellis and Seconds Left Images