Raise your hand if you, without being a staunch supporter of the Harlequins, imagined this epilogue in January, after the dismissal of Paul Gustard, Head of Rugby of the then seventh-ranked Quins.
Instead, against all odds, that moment was the beginning of a long ride to climb up the standings, up to a crazy semifinal won against Bristol after extra time and, perhaps, the most beautiful final of the last 20 years of Premiership, where the reigning champions of Exeter and the underdogs of the Stoop finished the game with only two points of difference on the scoreboard, but something more on the playing field.
TWO GAME PLANS AND TWO PHILOSOPHIES
The reigning champions have remained faithful to their classic style of play, made up of heavy scrums, solid defense and constant use of that phenomenon that goes by the name of Sam Simmonds, a player who is already revolutionizing the role by bringing the figure of the number 8 very close to that of the center. As for the backs, his brother Joe – now a stable guarantee among the english fly-halves – has the task of dictating the pace to Devoto and Slade, very fast players but similar to each other in technical and physical characteristics, which can prove to be a limit. In the enlarged triangle, neither the experience of Nowell first nor the explosiveness of Hogg then managed to give their best, giving more than one space to the Quins attack.
On the other hand, we find a compact and powerful scrum, led by the physicality of the excellent South African Louw and a fantastic Joe Marler, a legend of the club and a solid point for experience and charisma. A very high-level median couple made up by Care and Smith, both in a state of grace for the whole duration of the season; surprises now no longer such Dombrandt, Lynagh and Green, optimally integrated with the two centers – very different from each other and, consequently, capable of excellent variables – Marchant and Esterhuizen.
A mix of experience and exuberance, speed and power which, if mixed properly, lead to great results and complex actions, difficult to counter.
The Quins’ game plan was immediately evident: to counter the Chiefs not on physicality but on speed, both in attack and in defense. In the first case, using the backs a lot by exploiting the passages behind the back of the first heavy pod, allowing Smith great autonomy to better orchestrate the group thanks to his immense technical qualities, his grit and his dynamism. In the second, by making aggressive tackles and attacking the ruck quickly, so as to conquer the ball or recover free kicks and turnovers.
In the first three clips below we can see how, both from the first lineout phase and from the action in the middle of the field, the ball is delivered by Care to the first pod that pretends to enter and moves the ball towards Smith who sorts for the rushing Green.
Also excellent was the support by the young Lynagh, who was ready to follow the line of the fullback and, especially in the third example, to receive the ball inside.
As mentioned above, the defensive strategy was based on a solid line but, above all, on the explosiveness of second lines and always reactive centers in the tackle and in the contest of the ruck.
The first video highlights the aggressiveness of the London defense, thanks to which a kick slightly too long by Care, but high enough to allow the defensive climb, turns into a mismatch between the two defenses with loss of ground by Exeter, eventually forced to kick in turn too. Particularly noteworthy is the work of Esterhuizen, author of two tackles in rapid succession.
In the second example we highlight a good line of defense by the Quins and the quick reflexes of the usual Esterhuizen in the turnover, consequence of an objectively wrong choice by Exeter: a good ball movement leads to a numerical superiority on the right side of the field, with Cowan-Dickie on the wing completely ignored by a Cuthbert not fast enough to overtake Murley.
A turnover seen not only in defense but also in attack: in the third clip we see an attack on the left side by Murley, who gets rid of the ball before being tackled off the field, but the quick tackle by Marchant and the fast reflexes of Green and Care to attack the ruck punish the slowness of the Chiefs defenders.
A little aggressive and at times listless attitude on the part of a good part of the 15 of Exeter, whose performance was limited to a sort of “homework” without particular aggression. The individual qualities and a well-established game still brought results, but did not allow the Chiefs to impose their game in the phases in their favor, keeping the game on the rails of equilibrium. The subdued performance by Jonny Hill, an excellent second row, capable of excellent international performances that earned him the call to South Africa from Gatland, may be a good example of the general attitude of the Cornish team.
Poor initial concentration and imperfect communication with his Williams prop put him slightly out of position on Marcus Smith’s attack after just 33 seconds of play, allowing the opponent’s fly-half to take the first break of the game.
The subdued entry into the pitch is also highlighted by the awkward return to the line, when he stumbles on a teammate and, very slow to get up, finds himself offside on Care’s passing line.
Far more serious, five minutes later, is his mistake during a lineout thrown by the Harlequins. After an imprecise jump that takes him out of position with respect to the maul generated by the drive, Hill tries to stop the advance by entering sideways and causing the group to collapse on the try line. The technical try and the yellow card are inevitable.
After a weak first half, Exeter‘s simple game finally flexed its muscles, giving the impression of having finally turned the momentum of the match, thanks to the inevitable moment of fatigue accused by the Quins rearguard.
In the first example, Hill decides to do something to be forgiven, helping the almost unstoppable Sam Simmonds to stay on his feet after a first tackle and allowing him to launch towards the try line where Smith can do nothing against the black number 8.
Subsequently, an excellent close combination between Joe Simmonds and Cowan Dickie creates a rift in the line, with a rapid return offload to the fly-half who flies towards the 22m line, where with excellent draw he engages the fullback Green – and with a bit of malice he hinders Smith’s return to his right – in favor of the accurrent Devoto who goes smoothly to the try.
A simple play that comes back at the end of the game, when the same movement leads Kirsten to guess the running line, unloading the ball on Hogg at the last, freeing him from Green’s return and allowing Exeter to shorten – uselessly – the gap.
MARCUS SMITH, THE PERFECT fly-half FOR THE ROSES?
After a season finale and a lavish match, a couple of questions arise:
Is Marcus Smith the best fly-half on the English roster? And above all, has Eddie Jones lost his magic touch, having ignored a player of this stature especially in the last year? The answer, as usual, is always the same: it depends.
Smith’s skills are evident to anyone and the final was a great demonstration of the incredible potential available to the 22-year-old of Filipino descent: a universal player, effective in both phases, who is not afraid to tackle and with an out-of-the-box creative flair. All qualities put on display during the final, like the very good kicks that allowed great advances to his lineout group.
Or like the beautiful assist for Dombrandt’s try – we’ll see it in a while – a consequence of the sudden decision to change the sense of the play based on the positioning of his direct opponent.
Moving on to the defensive phase, the result does not change. The 4 tackles in 40 seconds are clear proof of this.
So, is he the perfect player? Obviously not. His young age, genius and consequent recklessness make Marcus a player – fortunately – still immature from the point of view of adrenaline management. The yellow card obtained in an almost incomprehensible way – a side entry into the ruck starting from an offside position, consequent guard left unattended on the side of the group and try by Exeter at that point – show that from this point of view there is still work to be done.
Furthermore, Smith’s own style of play makes him a difficult fly-half to integrate into differently structured game plans: the presence of Danny Care, an explosive metronome with over 300 games played, allows him to vary the front of the attack with a good freedom of thought and imagination to try the break, leaving the attack without a playmaker in the next phase and, consequently, making the action predictable. Finally, in the game plan steadily adopted by Eddie Jones and observed over the years, the Youngs – Ford median is framed in a rigorous scheme where decisions are made collectively by the leadership group of which Owen Farrell is the recognized symbol. Little room for exuberant fantasy with the Roses shirt, in short.
PATIENCE is THE VIRTUE of the strong
Not just Marcus Smith, we said. The victory in the final was a real test of how organization and patience are fundamental weapons for any well-studied game plan and we close this long analysis with three examples of how successful this mentality is.
The try at the 37th comes from a scrum won by the Quins at 5 meters, in which Danny Care recovers the ball and attacks the line, engaging two opponents and creating numerical superiority widely. The defenders line up in that direction, but the direction is changed almost immediately, forcing the Chiefs’ defense to reposition themselves on the line and allowing Louw to enter, on the second attempt, thanks to the help by his teammate Symons.
An identical scheme was applied on the occasion of the second half with time expired, when, again from a scrum, Care uses the same movement seen previously to occupy three defenders – taking advantage of the help by the poles which do not allow a compact defense – again changing the sense of play for Smith who, noticing the fracture created in the defense line, sends Dombrandt to the most comfortable of tries.
The third and final video demonstrates how the intelligence of the London midfielder and the adaptability of Millard’s entire XV led to the maximum result.
It all stems from the quadriceps injury to Cuthbert, Exeter’s wing, which forces the enlarged triangle to be managed with only two vertices. Realizing what had happened, the Quins decided to exploit the effective numerical inferiority with Care’s precise box kicks to engage the right side of the field, thus not allowing the other winger O’Flaherty to cover the left side.
Exeter recovers the ball but gets rid of it badly with a very high kick in the middle of the field, which facilitates the work of the opponents, allowing in the next phase Smith to move the ball to the left with a kick and make Nowell run – now in the double role of wing and fullback.
The action continues with changes of direction and kicks to jump over until Green decides to break the delay by attacking the line with the excellent support by his teammate Lynagh, breaking the defense of the Chiefs and giving Smith the possibility to kick, finally, the ball to the left, an uncovered area, where the defense tries with an extreme but useless attempt to avert the try.
Great job, Quins!