In 2012, Harlequins lifted the Aviva Premiership trophy for the first time ever, a seminal moment in the club’s history and a just reward for Conor O’Shea’s work in transforming a side that once had a reputation of being nothing more than ‘Fancy Dans’ into the best side in the country.
Two seasons later and A-League and LV Cup trophies have been added to the cabinet – but no more Premiership glory. While they haven’t fallen far from the top – finishing third and fourth in 2013 and 2014 respectively – there is a sense that they have just slipped away slightly from the standards set in recent times by the likes of Saracens and Northampton Saints.
Unsurprisingly, Conor O’Shea sees it differently. Any pressure from setting themselves such high standards as a result of that win in 2012 is completely welcome – but he admits last season they fell short of where they wanted to be.
“We can be better, but what we like is the expectation that surrounds us,” says O’Shea. “We’ve had a trophy every season for the last three seasons, until last season. We had well-documented injury troubles, but I think the mental strength shown to win the five games on the trot to get to that semi [was excellent].”
Despite only sneaking into the top four at the very end of the season, O’Shea is confident that, in general, the club is heading in right direction – and you only have to look at the stats from the past few years to understand where he is coming from.
“Saracens have won 52 regular games in the last three seasons – we’ve won 47, Leicester have won 45, Northampton have won 44. Only one of those teams hasn’t won the Premiership.”
It is a valid point, and shows the importance of being able to play knockout rugby effectively. O’Shea says, therefore, that getting into the top four is what matters most.
“The top four is a very difficult place to get – you have to ride the rollercoaster, stay level when everyone else is panicking. The mental strength we showed at the tail end of last year was massive.
“Only one team until last year had won 14 games and not made the play-offs, and that was Sale – Leicester pipped them winning 13 because of bonus points. Last year was the second time that ever happened, and actually a team on 15 games, Bath, didn’t make it. So that’s around the level you need to make – everyone wants to get a home draw, but we’re not even thinking of that.”
Since O’Shea’s arrival at the club, Harlequins have been a team built on the promise of young English players – a strategy that finally bore fruit in 2012, and has since seen them go on to produce numerous members of the England team. There were five Quins in the England side in the second test against New Zealand this summer.
“It’s the way we do it – we promote our own players,” says O’Shea. “We’re really excited by the young players that got blooded last year.
“Anyone who knows us would say actually holding onto our players is the best recruitment you could possibly have. We’ve welcomed seven new academy signings, and Nick Easter said to me ‘They know the Quins way – we can tick that box and move on.’”
It is a good point; there have been just two new arrivals from outside of the club – Marland Yarde from London Irish and Asaeli Tikoirotuma from Waikato Chiefs. That is the Quins way – while other sides invest in big name signings, they spend their time and money elsewhere.
A case in point: O’Shea and other members of the coaching team have spent time this summer at sporting institutions across the world, looking to pick up tips and pointers that they can then build into their training – something the players are reportedly very keen to do.
O’Shea himself spent a couple of weeks with NFL side the Philadelphia Eagles, to get to grips with a new ‘cognitive learning tool for off-feet learning’ (me neither) that they use. The Eagles pioneered the project in American Football last year – Quins aim to do the same in rugby this season.
“Philadelphia are the one side in American Football that use this, we’re going to bring it into rugby. Hopefully with all the attrition it’ll give us those little extra gains, so that when a player isn’t able to train, he’s actually making live decisions from matches on a computer.
“There are players that can’t train as much as others – it’s the nature of the attritional level of the sport, so how can we keep on training their brains, asking them to make decisions without having them on-feet?”
Quins are certainly at the forefront of technological advances in rugby, but will they be at the forefront of the league this season? As O’Shea repeatedly points out, there will only be one side that walks away happy – he’s doing all he can to ensure that this season, that side is Harlequins again.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43