Harlequins – new signings, same problems?

rugbyMat Luamanu became the 7th new signing Harlequins have made in preparation for the 2015-16 Aviva Premiership season, the strong ball carrying back rower from New Zealand joins British Lions and Welsh Grand Slam winners Adam Jones (who was involved in Wales’ last 3 Grand Slams) and Dr. Jamie Roberts (who was involved in the 2 most recent successes). They follow Scottish man mountain and winger Tim Visser (all 6 feet 4 inches and 17 plus stone of him), former Samoan International Centre (and Tim Cahill’s cousin) Winston Stanley and 26 year old Welsh prop Owen Evans who has followed Adam Jones East along the M4. 58 times capped Wallaby lock James Horwill combined with 24 year old tight-head prop Matt Shields and the permanent signing of Fly Half Tim Swiel from Super Rugby franchise Natal Sharks after his loan spell last season complete the influx of fresh blood in West London.
In terms of sprucing up a team whose league position slipped 4 places to 8th in 2014-15 from 4th the previous season Harlequins look to have a rather decent job and they’ve certainly bought in players of experience and class but it’s the positions of the players that they have acquired which leaves more questions than answers.
Individually, 7 (or 8 if Tim Swiel is going to appear regularly at Fullback) of these signings make perfect sense as they all fill gaps left by players leaving the club at the end of last season, however they have signed 3 props and only lost 2. However when one considers they have lost 3 backs to retirement (Ugo Monye, Tom Williams and Jordan Turner Hall) and another 7 players have moved on to greener pastures even the most basic arithmetic suggests only signing 9 new players (one of who is an extra prop remember) leave them a player short. Players leaving has not been the only issue that Harlequins have had to confront, they’ve also become victims of their own success and following 3 recent appearances in the end of season playoffs (following a rather lowly 7th placed finish in the 2010/11 season) England came calling with 6 players of their squad becoming England regulars and Chris Robshaw becoming the International captain, a further 5 have been unavailable for their club side at various times as a result of Saxons (England ‘A’) call ups. Allied to this issue Jamie Roberts will not arrive until after the Varsity match in December and in light of the fact that Tim Visser should be a leading protagonist in Scotland’s Rugby World Cup campaign Harlequins face a potentially sticky start to the Premiership season (although if Scotland fail to reach the knockout stages he could be available quite early on). Such a problematic start could be avoided if they were either willing or able to call upon a strong academy system to bolster their ranks but according to their own website Harlequins leading academy players are 4 front rowers, 3 wingers, 2 locks, 2 back rowers and a scrum half none of which are areas where Harlequins are particularly shorthanded. Combine this with the fact Harlequins, at times seem loathed to promote talented youngsters and it’s difficult to see Harlequins recording victories in their first 3 games of the season against Wasps, Leicester and Bath who they play in the first 3 weeks of the season, although Bath maybe without a lot of key players during the Rugby World Cup.
Away from the obvious logistical problem of signing players who will be playing in the RWC when the season starts Harlequins face a more pressing concern, their inspirational play maker Nick Evans (who has 16 caps and 103 points for the All Blacks) isn’t getting any younger and his injuries are starting to take a toll not just on his ability to perform but also on the team’s results. Since 2011 he has scored fewer and fewer points (from 348 to 221) and with the exception of 2012-13 the number of minutes he’s played on the pitch has also declined over that period of time. Harlequins have understandably failed to find a suitable replacement (All Black number 10’s don’t become available very often after all) and while they have signed Tim Swiel he’s just 22 years old and a player who they will hope can develop under Evans’ tutelage, not come in and replace him immediately. Ben Botica is Harlequins third Fly Half and for the last 3 seasons he’s been in the position that they appear to have now placed Swiel in (one in which Rory Clegg found himself between 2009 and 2013), the young pretender to the throne who is thrown in at the deep end with increasing regularity when Evans’ 35 year old body is failing, but last season Botica himself was injured and that was how Swiel originally came to be signed as an emergency loan.
If Harlequins are going to at least attempt to afford Evans some extra longevity and avoid the possibility of their season being placed in the hands of 2 young and comparatively inexperienced number 10’s then they may have to take a drastic step and adapt their playing style from the attractive and open brand of rugby which their Director of Rugby Conor O’Shea prides himself on. The signing of so many hard running ball carriers maybe a sign that they are prepared to become more structured and direct when in possession and if Jamie Roberts and Stanley can crash over the midfield gain line with the help of Visser and Luamanu then the tight 5 forwards like Horwill and Adam Jones will be in their element. Incidentally Harlequins are not alone in currently facing a dilemma regarding their team ethos, many teams in Rugby Union (the Welsh and Argentinean national sides and Bristol Rugby to name just 3) these days are facing an almost ethical crisis. Wales may need to disregard the fact they have outside backs like George North and Lee Halfpenny and attack England, Australia and in particular Fiji through the forwards, Argentina need to play a much tighter game than they have in recent months if they are to progress in the Rugby World Cup and Bristol need to start kicking points come the playoff final if they want to win promotion to the Premiership. All of these moves would contrast with their respective coaching team’s personal ideals and doctrines.  When Evans arrived in West London in 2008 he was 29 and having played 4 seasons of Super Rugby well suited to the brand of rugby that Harlequins have historically favoured, fast paced with a lot an emphasis on promoting the ball and offloading out of contact, however the rules at the breakdown have changed a lot over the last 7 years too and with the new interpretations the rolling maul has become an increasingly potent offensive weapon. So a more direct Harlequins may well be a more successful Harlequins, but any transition will take time which could be in their favour as they may well just be hitting their straps come the end of the season when the trophies are up for grabs.

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