Ups and downs: Lifting the trophy, a dramatic comeback against London Irish and heavy loss to Racing
When Paul Gustard left Harlequins in January the club were not in a disastrous position, sat seventh in the Premiership only six games into the new season. But their confidence and belief were gone.
What followed was one of the more remarkable transformations in recent Premiership history, becoming the first team to finish fourth in the Premiership and win the title since Saracens in 2015, and the first to win a semi-final in extra time. And they did it their own way – the Harlequins way – with a thrilling brand of rugby that led to Quins finishing the season having scored 102 tries, second only to the side they defeated in the final, Exeter.
Reflecting on the most astonishing of seasons, coaches Nick Evans and Adam Jones speak exclusively to Telegraph Sport looking back on the pivotal fixtures in the 2020-21 campaign.
November 20: Harlequins 3 Exeter 33
Facing an Exeter side who had won the title only a few weeks earlier over the road at Twickenham was never going to make for the easiest of starts, and Harlequins were well within the contest up to a point. Until the Sam Simmonds’ show gets underway.
Evans: Fine margins, for that one. We were in the game for a while, and then they squeezed us, as they do most teams, with two maul tries and overpowered us. It was a sobering start. But we had a bit of confidence that we hung in there.
Jones: We weren’t too bad for about 60 minutes. They were battering the door and it came off the hinges at the end. They showed the gulf between them and the rest of the league in that game. We fell off a bit at the end, which wasn’t great.
November 28: Northampton 29 Harlequins 49
Harlequins however bounce back well. Danny Care, set up by Luke Northmore runs over for his and the club’s first try of the season. He’d finish the campaign with a dozen.
Evans: That was a good bounce back. We took advantage of a team probably low on confidence. We looked to move the ball a bit more but at that point there was more kicking, opportunities coming through transition.
Jones: It was how you would expect a Harlequins team to play – the movement of the ball in the wider channels. It clicked that day, we were far more physical than them.
December 20: Harlequins 7 Racing 49
The real nadir. Against a hugely-talented Racing 92 outfit in the Champions Cup, Harlequins are blown away at home. Care in the build-up to the Premiership final said this result made him question whether he was still good enough. It’s a calamitous result.
Evans: To be honest it was pretty humiliating, really. It showed a gulf of where we were compared to the biggest teams in Europe. We lost confidence from that, massively. We had a really good training week that week and felt we could have opportunities, but when momentum went against us, we didn’t have the skills or mindset to turn momentum back onto us. It was a big turning point in the season, one of the biggest games to learn from.
Jones: The Munster game the week before we put in a lot of physical and emotional energy, and put in a good account of ourselves given a lot of boys were missing. That was tough. Racing play similar rugby, very attack-minded, but with the extra £50m budget. That was tough to take, they just battered us. We weren’t in a very good place at the time and the gulf was obvious. We were hurting.
January 10: Harlequins 27 London Irish 27
The last game of Gustard’s two-and-a-half year reign. Harlequins appear to have the game wrapped up before Irish stage a late comeback to clinch a draw, with Harlequins blowing a 12-point lead. Gustard’s post-match comments are striking.
We have tried different things but we make too many simple errors and are the architects of our own downfall. It’s the same thing happening week on week, the team is hurting and are upset though. We are wearing a bit of pain from time to time, but it is too much pain.
Evans: That was disappointing. It showed where we were as a group mentally with shutting games out. The weakness and fight wasn’t there to stop Irish from getting back into the game. It was probably a knock-on effect from the Racing game and showed confidence was low.
Jones: We were better than [Irish] and should have won it comfortably. If that was us now, same situation, we would have won that by 50, 60 points. But we were down and struggling. We were very low. The confidence of the boys… it was hard to watch, they were so knocked by the results.
Gustard leaves the club 10 days later.
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
Evans: Paul leaving, it wasn’t obvious. It was a decision made from top. Gussy is a massively brilliant coach and improved me as a coach. It was a shock. It always is when you lose someone like that. We had to move forward and galvanise the group.
Jones: Honestly, I didn’t see it coming. I know results weren’t going well, but it was only a couple of months before we’d put 50 points on Northampton. But you get the phone call to come in and you know something’s up. Gussy and I became good mates, I got to know him well, and it was a tough period. But I had been through it before with coaches, at Wales and the Ospreys. There’s not a lot you can do. It’s like an elephant in the room. As a player, you have a couple of days of weirdness and then have to get on with it. There’s a lot of chat. As a coach, because you’re close to the guy, there’s a bit of anger towards people. There’s a lot of questions – ‘why has he been sacked’, ‘are you next’. It was a tough week.
Rather than appoint a new head coach, Evans, Jones and Jerry Flannery step up their roles, with Billy Millard the club’s general manager overseeing the operation.
Evans: We have a tight coaching group that kind of compliments each other really well, aligned how we want to play the game. We managed to accelerate that quickly into the playing group. And we trusted them to go out there and execute it.
I’m not saying it was pats on the back all the time. We had good, frank conversations, disagreements. I had one with Joe Marler which was one of the best things that happened for me as a coach! It was kind of an awkward situation but we understood it was for the betterment of the team. I came across in a wrong way, we talked about after training, gave each other a hug and moved on. It showed we all felt accountable for Gussy leaving, and had to move on and do things better and align.
January 31: Wasps 17 Harlequins 49
In Harlequins’ next game, there’s an instant response. Harlequins thrash Wasps, oddly just as Wasps thrashed Harlequins the previous season after parting ways with their own head coach Dai Young. Harlequins score six tries, including a first of the season for a young wing named Louis Lynagh – his first in a breakthrough season. It’s the first of five wins in the next block of six matches.
Evans: It was a pretty emotional week, that. A line was drawn in the sand. It was the start of us bringing that trust back into the group. Look at us now, we’ve got a group who trust in the coaches and strength and conditioning staff to create an environment, schedule, training which is enjoyable and challenging for the group. And we trust them to execute.
The messages were simple that week. We cut meetings, messaging down a lot, and gave them belief to play what they see a little bit more. It was the perfect game for us. The trust didn’t come back completely, but it was the start.
Jones: There were a few tweaks, only because you have to get the boys feeling good about themselves as soon as possible. We changed a few bits, but nothing overly dramatic. Nick [Evans] just blossomed. He took the club’s DNA and ran with it. A lot of it was down to Nick how we changed things.
Harlequins win four of their next five matches, with the only defeat a narrow loss away to Newcastle Falcons.
March 13: Exeter 21 Harlequins 20
March 27: Bristol 35 Harlequins 33
Two tight losses, but defeats which in hindsight shaped Harlequins season. After watching leads slip in both fixtures, there were lessons to take forward into the end of the season. Which, with hindsight, proved enormously beneficial.
Evans: Personally, the Bristol game was the most important game of our season. Losing the way we did, we debriefed that pretty hard. We sent the last 10 minutes out to the senior players, they and we as coaches put our thoughts down, came out with plans for the scenarios. We were 12 points up with 10 minutes, and we felt we didn’t stay true to ourselves. We sat back, we weren’t positive. There were a few technical, tactical things, but it was more about positive mindset.
Jones: They were massive. We realised we could compete with the best teams, going away to both those places and honestly should have won both games. But the Bristol game sat us down as a leadership group and coaches, how were going to finish games off, which was something we probably hadn’t dealt with before. The way we want to be as a team, we want to go for it.
Speaking to the boys in the changing rooms after the Exeter game, they were ‘saying we want to play Exeter again, we need to play them again in the play-offs’, because we knew we could at least compete, but that we also had the artillery and firepower.
April 24: London Irish 21 Harlequins 25
May 9: Harlequins 48 Wasps 46
The two late comebacks, both scored by Marcus Smith. Lose these fixtures and Harlequins might have ended up in more of a scrap for fourth spot. But with Smith’s solo try in Brentford, before finishing off a team move to a 90-point thriller against Wasps, Harlequins start to believe. Whatever the scoreboard says, it’s never too late.
Evans: Things would have been pretty different if we hadn’t one those. You need a bit of luck, and we created ours through the learnings from Bristol. ‘We can’t think things are gone or already won, just remain positive.’ Irish, we went down a red card as well, Luke Northmore came on and really lifted the intensity. We just kept coming.
For us when we looked back on that winning moment, we’d really turned a bit of a corner. This team wasn’t going to just sit back. The only way to play was have smiles on our faces. It reflected how we’d been training. Those wins were unbelievable – I don’t have much hair left!
The belief around Marcus’s game, everybody knows how talented he is but he has a real steely mindset as well. The Irish one was a bit of magic, but the Wasps one, for him to be in the right position after we’d spoken about him getting second touches, was outstanding. He operates under pressure like no other at the moment.
Jones: With our medical and S&C staff, these boys are fit and will keep going for 80 minutes. We’re well managed by Mike Lancaster and Gaz Tong, who understand the metres and what the boys’ bodies are going through, using the gumshield technology for collisions. It showed in the Wasps game. Marcus was amazing. When you have a talent like that, you are never out of the game really.
Fourth place is more or less secured after victory over Bath, with Harlequins back in the play-offs for the first time since 2014.
June 19: Premiership semi-final – Bristol 36 Harlequins 43 (aet)
The greatest-ever comeback in Premiership history, which sounds rather impressive. From 28-0 down, this young, evolving Harlequins side steered by the experience of Care and Stephan Lewies and Joe Marler find a way to not only draw level with table-topping Bristol, but to do defeat them as well thanks to tries in extra time from Tyrone Green and Joe Marchant, both exceptional towards the end of the season.
Evans: All we heard the last month was we’d done really well, but ‘Bristol won’t let them score this’ or ‘they won’t be able to do this’.
Half-time, everyone was calm. And then at full-time by the time we had got down from the top of the stands, most of the emotional stuff had been said. It was just a few tactical points we put across. Any blow we were dealt, the response was positive.
Joe [Marler] was a big influence in that semi-final at half-time. I think some of the younger boys were shellshocked – Marcus [Smith] and Dommers [Alex Dombrandt] probably haven’t been in that situation, 28-5 down at half-time. But we (the team) had been, against Wasps in the 2012 double header down by 27 points. We’d been there before. And I think Joe said ‘if there’s one team who can do this boys… we can do this’. Guys who had been around the track a bit more gave a bit more belief to the young guys.
Jones: The fans out sang the Bristol fans all day. At half-time, the boys were a bit shellshocked but there was no panic. Steph [Lewies] spoke well. With every try out fans got louder and when we went ahead, it was bonkers. Playing 100 minutes of rugby, the boys showed ridiculous resilence and fitness levels. Their players were dropping and it looked as though we were getting stronger. Considering there were only 500 of our supporters, I’ve never heard anything like it. I went to watch Boca Juniors against River Plate a few years ago and it was like the Boca ultras.
The message at half-time was just to keep playing, don’t go into our shell.
June 26: Premiership final – Exeter 38 Harlequins 40
After the emotion of that remarkable semi-final win, can Harlequins conquer another mountain? It’s the first final in nine years – Exeter are playing in their sixth in a row. Harlequins walk over the A319 from The Stoop, the streets lined with supporters. Exeter lead 14-7 as half-time approaches but tries from Wilco Louw, arguably the signing of the season, and Alex Dombrandt mean it’s Harlequins who lead at the break.
André Esterhuizen’s try then gives Harlequins a healthy 12-point lead, up 26-14.
Evans: Looking back at André’s [Esterhuizen] try, the pride in that was there were nine different scenarios in that movement. That’s what we train, from the counter to the offload to the breakdown to Stephan playing nine, our alignment, speed and shape. All the things we have trained over the last six months was there to see. The belief to do it under pressure when the game’s on the line, to look for that space and create those opportunities and nail them under the pressure of the final was hugely inspiring and a big sense of pride.
But back come Exeter, with converted tries from Sam Simmonds (who else) and Ollie Devoto putting the defending champions ahead. With 15 minutes left, a Joe Simmonds’ penalty gives Exeter a 31-26 lead. But Harlequins after those tight losses to Exeter and Bristol in March are never out of it, always positive. Louis Lynagh, the find of their season, scores twice, the second featuring some brilliant work from Marcus Smith, to make it 31-40. Exeter manage to get one try back, not the two they need. Harlequins are champions. Back in January it seemed implausible. They’ve done it their way.
Jones: We’ve shown a lot of learning since the first Bristol game, how we finish games off and play. We’re never going to go into our shell. It’s testament to how the playing group has responded. It’s been quite a six months. It’s probably amazing for the fans, but it’s horrible to coaching it (laughs). When the change was made with Gussy, I don’t think anyone was giving us a hope in hell of doing what we did.
Evans: I watched it back on Tuesday and the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. It’s just pride. To see the delight, looking at the fans, part of our DNA is to inspire them and the community. To see how happy they were was brilliant.
The DNA of the style of rugby we’re playing has always been there with our ancestors as coaches. To score 13 tries against the two best teams in the competition [Bristol and Exeter] was unbelievable.
When Louis [Lynagh] went over, we thought the conversion was pretty important and Marcus got it. We were probably thinking it was over. The message was ‘make sure we get our exit right’, which we didn’t and Exeter scored straight away! We knew where the restart was going to go and were like ‘they’ve got to go 80 metres, we’re not going to compete at the breakdown – if they go 80 metres and score then fair play, they deserve to be the best team’. And then it was just elation, a surreal moment.
To do it as a player in 2012, now as a coach of the same team… it was a shock really, to be honest. Just a massive amount of pride and elation, from where this team has come.