Gallagher Premiership 2019-20 season review: Harlequins

Charles Richardson
·4 min read
Joe Marchant returned from a successful loan spell in New Zealand - GETTY IMAGES
Joe Marchant returned from a successful loan spell in New Zealand - GETTY IMAGES

After an up-and-down season, Harlequins eventually settled in mid-table and will hope to kick on next season, as Charles Richardson reports.

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Highs

After an underwhelming start to Paul Gustard’s sophomore season as head of rugby, a corner of sorts was turned, the catalyst being an absolute shellacking of a fairly full-strength Saracens side in January. No 8 Alex Dombrandt starred in a 41-14 victory that kept him howling at the door for England selection, while fly-half Marcus Smith looked to have come of age in a wonderfully rounded display, too.

Since that victory, despite a season dogged by inconsistency, there have been further triumphs. Victory over Exeter at the Stoop in a humdinger of a contest that climaxed in a ball of penalty-try drama and confusion, and also the first match of the Premiership’s post-lockdown resumption, where sheer bloody-mindedness and bravery were too much for big-spending Sale.

They finished with a flourish, too, to give stalwart Chris Robshaw the perfect send-off with an entertaining victory at Welford Road against lowly Leicester on his 300th appearance for the club.

Chris Robshaw pictured after his last game for Harlequins on his 300th appearance  - GETTY IMAGES
Chris Robshaw pictured after his last game for Harlequins on his 300th appearance - GETTY IMAGES

Lows

While by no means disastrous, a final finish of sixth was apposite for a season that featured tremendous highs but also tremendous lows. Winning only three of their opening eight Premiership fixtures ensured Harlequins’ campaign got off to the worst possible start and Champions Cup losses to Ulster (home and away) and away to Clermont offered no escape.

Then came the Saracens turning point, a real diamond in the rough; but the most disappointing facet of Harlequins’ season has been their inability to regularly back up those diamonds. Although out of the club’s control, the enforced retirement of former England flanker Jack Clifford at the age of 27 was another black mark on the 2019-20 season.

Best player

Before lockdown, both wing Gabriel Ibitoye and prop Kyle Sinckler might have been in the running for this mantle, but they both left in the summer for Agen and Bristol respectively. Aaron Morris and Joe Marchant’s performances, in the season’s latter stages especially, showed enough to provide optimism for the future of Harlequins’ backline, while Simon Kerrod’s displays at tighthead prop suggested that the loss of Kyle Sinckler might not be as keenly felt as many feared.

But Harlequins’ best player was fly-half Smith. He has matured exponentially since he was first called up to Eddie Jones’ England squad as a fresh-faced apprentice.

He has shouldered criticism for his lack of physicality and a seeming diffidence at getting involved in rugby’s gnarlier side, but since the lockdown his defence has been outstanding, chucking himself in defensive duties with a previously unseen level of fearlessness. He lost nothing in the game management department, either, and if he continues in this form then an England recall cannot be far away.

Best signing

Scott Steele’s arrival from London Irish gave Harlequins impressive depth at scrum-half, competing with Danny Care and Martin Landajo for the No 9 jersey. Steele’s impressive form for his club, largely from the bench, has seen him earn a call-up to the Gregor Townsend’s wider squad for the upcoming autumn internationals. Marchant was fantastic towards the latter part of the season after returning from his loan with the Blues, but he cannot be classed as a ‘new signing’.

Harlequins’ most impressive arrival this season, however, was that of South African centre Andre Esterhuizen. Paul Lasike offers Harlequins ballast in midfield, but Esterhuizen brings slightly more dynamism and skill in contrast to Lasike’s dumper-truck approach. And, like most South Africans, he hits hard.

Next season’s prospects

The loss of Robshaw, as well as a first full season without Sinckler, marks an end of an era of sorts at The Stoop. Next season will be the first since 2007 that Robshaw will not be around the club’s first-team squad, so it will be interesting to see how they adapt.

Harlequins’ squad is littered with good rugby players, but question marks remain as to whether they have the squad depth and the stardust to really push on and challenge the likes of Exeter, Wasps, Bristol and Bath, although they will be helped, in a congested season, by their relative lack of internationals (specifically English ones).

The aim next season, of course, will be a top-four finish and a good run in the Champions Cup but unless they improve their consistency it is difficult to expect them to be anything other than mid-table once again.