Harlequins must become ruthless if they are to rival the greats of English and European rugby

Harlequins beat Cardiff in the Champions Cup this weekend, but there is room for improvement – and some areas of concern

Credit: Action Images via Reuters

On paper Harlequins have got off to as close to the perfect start in the Champions Cup as possible. Two wins against Castres and Cardiff, the former on the road on a tough Sunday night trip to France and latter with a bonus point at home, are results that would have been expected of the two Premiership champions before them, Exeter and Saracens. 

However, when you look more closely at the manner of the south-west Londoners’ victories there is another story.

Quins nicked a 20-18 win in a slugfest away at Castres in week one, and while no one would detract an away victory in France, by their own admission it was far from their best performance. Similarly, a 43-17 win over Cardiff on the surface looks good. But it should have been at least that considering Cardiff were severely depleted and were a side cobbled together after more than 30 players were unavailable due to Covid.

Yet, it was all square at the interval and up to almost the hour mark until Quins ran away with the game. There is no doubt they are a good side but if they want to move to the next level – winning more Premiership titles and having a serious impact in Europe, they will need to learn to become a great team.

We take a look at what has held them back over the last two weeks and where they can build.

Naive/slow start

If it had been a full-strength Cardiff side, ending the first half 17-17 would be understandable but instead the Welsh side was a mishmash of academy players, part-timers and soon-to-be retirees glued together by internationals like Josh Adams, Ellis Jenkins and Rey Lee-Lo. 

However, Quins have one of the best half-back pairings in Europe in veteran Danny Care and the verve of Marcus Smith. The hosts had the slower start with Cardiff academy full back Cameron Winnett running in for the first try after five minutes, Care quickly replied. Yet what was apparent even when Cardiff lost Adams to a yellow card was just how strong their defensive shape was and a Premiership-winning side such as Quins should have been able to find a way to break it down. For the first hour they sure tried, but couldn’t quite turn the screw.

Smith and Care – 12 years between them – are one of the best half-back pairings in Europe

Credit: Getty Images Europe

There may have been no stopping Theo Cabango, younger brother of Swansea City defender Ben as he flew down the wing to dot down but Quins should have from kick off been clinical in grinding Cardiff down.

Ruthless edge needed

Harlequins had some great thinkers of the game on the field on Saturday but often they are prone to moments of panic. 

As was the case in their loss to Sale in October, and their more recent defeats against London Irish and Leicester, it can take them too long to settle down into a rhythm. This could be seen throughout the first half. But rather than there being one specific moment, it was typified by a lack of ruthlessness for the first hour. 

Harlequins senior coach Tabai Matson said his team didn’t get into “gear” until 50 minutes has passed and accepted they could get away with this against the current Cardiff side. Clearly, they will not be afforded the same opportunity in the Premiership, or the latter stages of this tournament. Imagine what sides like Leinster and Toulouse at full throttle could do to Quins if they do not switch on for the first half. 

Those two teams are two of the most successful ever in Europe and taking away player pools and other variables – their mindset when winning is typified by ruthlessness.

A good way of looking at the blueprint for ruthlessness is how last week Leinster – albeit a team heavy in Test internationals – sealed their bonus point by the 30-minute mark against a Bath side who, admittedly are on an 11-match losing streak, but were a much more cohesive unit than Cardiff. But that level of clinical ruthlessness is what Quins should be aiming for.

In the 20-minute period in the second half when Quins scored four tries they showed a glimpse of this but it needs to become an 80-minute mindset in every match. With Smith, Alex Dombrandt and Joe Marchant proven match-winners who are also receiving greater exposure on the international scene they have all the hallmarks to be a great team if they get their mindset right.

Easing the burden on Dombrandt

Dombrandt seemed keen to take on as much responsibility as he could against Cardiff

Credit: PA

During the Autumn Internationals, much of the talk was around Smith’s mentality and coping with pressure. It isn’t criticising a player – it is actually a compliment when they receive that much attention. The same concerns need to be addressed with Dombrandt, who deservedly was named man of the match but at times, particularly in the first half, was targeted by Cardiff. His response appeared to be to try the same things even harder, even though they weren’t quite clicking for him. 

But he showed his growing experience by changing his methods in the second half, emerging as the man his side needed to close out the game and contributed with two tries.

If his star continues to rise, more England recognition will come his way but he will need to be careful to avoid becoming a marked man, just as Billy Vunipola did for his all action displays from No 8. As soon as you become a threat at Test level, you very quickly find two defenders in your way instead of one – much like Cardiff did to Dombrandt on Saturday.

However, there were times when it felt like he was taking on too much himself and he must remember he is surrounded by players who can support him. He won two turnovers more than anyone else but back row colleague Jack Kenningham made 18 tackles – 10 more than Dombrandt – which serves as a timely reminder for the 24 year-old that he doesn’t always need to do it all himself.

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