When it comes to the Premiership’s greatest talents, none are better respected than Nick Evans. This was made palpably clear on Wednesday night, when the Harlequins fly-half was honoured with The RPA Player of the Year Award in London. He is by far and away the league’s finest player in a number 10 shirt, but bring Harlequins their first league title tomorrow and he will be always remembered as one of the league’s greatest signings. The fact that his first season in England ended in such acrimony following the Bloodgate scandal, feels like an eternity ago.
“When I first arrived the team was pretty established and then obviously that summer it imploded a bit, so we kind of had to start again. But the way we play never really changed. It was a more a mental thing and that takes a couple of years to get back – that confidence and belief that we had before. I think the continuity of the team in that we haven’t lost too many helps as well. Seeing the same faces, you know how people play and the team plays as a unit.”
Evans joined the club following the disappointment of the 2007 Rugby World Cup and the reasoning behind his recruitment back then remains true to this day. “The club was sold to me when I first came over about bringing through the youngsters and being an experienced player. The aim has always been to bring the academy guys through to play in Premiership semi-finals and Heineken Cups so we’ve done that to an extent. I also said I wanted to win trophies and they said they felt they had a group coming through and could do that – and so it’s proven by winning the Amlin Challenge Cup last year.”
As a reward for their performance after the semi-final win over Northampton Saints, Quins spent three days last week in Abu Dhabi in order to recover and recharge, not that there was any lack of training involved. What has worked for Saracens in the past may well aid the new finalists this time round as well. “We didn’t have much of a rest in Abu Dhabi – in fact we trained pretty hard – but we had a bit of fun as well. Now we’ve come back we’ve had more days of hard training and so the excitement has definitely amped up.”
“It was more a change of scenery for us. We could have come down to Surrey Sports Park and done the same things that we’ve done for the last 47 weeks, but it was nice to have a change and enjoy ourselves whilst working hard at the same time. It was only three days really after the travelling so there was plenty of fitness and contact work, so not so much mental preparation because that’s really been over the last few days.”
That mental preparation this week will have been based on taking the positives from the 33-43 defeat at the Stoop last month against tomorrow’s opponents Leicester Tigers. Evans has nothing but respect for the Tigers pedigree over the last decade, but admits that Harlequins will never stop believing they can turn them over.
“They’re just a champion side. We know the size of the task up against us being the newbies against a side that’s been in the last 8 finals. I won’t say the pressure is off us, but they are the more experienced side and from our point of view we just have to keep doing what we’re doing and focus on the parts of our game that make us Harlequins, and also hope for a bit of luck.”
Four years on from Evans joining the club, Quins remain as youthful an operation as ever. The average age of the squad comfortably resides in the low 20s – Harlequins and England captain Chris Robshaw is 25 – making Evans one of the wise old heads Quins cannot do without.
“It’s still a young side and that makes me want to hang around. I was sitting next to Sam Twomey who turned 20 the other day and was like “Mate, you’re 11 and a half years younger than I am!” He’s complaining about sore bodies and the rest and I told him “Wait till you get to my age.”
“I’ve got one more year on my contract and then I’ve got some decisions to make. It probably doesn’t really matter whether I’m here or not – I think the core of the group and the systems that are in place now are really good, making it easy for new players to adapt to our culture and the way we want to play.”
Whether Evans stays after the end of next season or not, winning on Saturday would rank in his eyes as his greatest achievement aside from representing the All Blacks. “I’ve had a lot of fun times in Super Rugby and been in NPC and Amlin finals, but I think what we’ve done this year by finishing top and playing in front of two world record crowds… Look, we know the task ahead of us is pretty big but we’ll give it our best and hopefully we’ll sneak it.” With the league’s best number 10 on their side, Quins have a fantastic chance.
by Ben Coles
Images courtesy of Onside Images & Getty Images