The hotly anticipated Premiership London derby kick’s off this Saturday afternoon, as Harlequins host Saracens at the Twickenham Stoop. With the dust settled on the Rugby World Cup, the international players are back at their clubs, with England scrum-half Danny Care amongst those ready for the challenge.
Care will be lining up against an assortment of his England teammates, with Saracens expected to bring a stacked squad of talent to the Stoop. The fixture’s headline battle looks set at fly half, with England halfbacks Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell running out for their rival London clubs. Care is excited to supply the ammunition for this battle within the war, after his Harlequins teammate was pushed to fullback for England’s Rugby World Cup campaign.
However, despite the on-field rivalry the two share on the pitch, Care revealed how Smith and Farrell have an outstanding level of camaraderie for each other in an England camp. Care discussed both ends of this sword, with the duo set to bring the best out of each other in this Saturday’s derby clash. Speaking in the Harlequins press conference, Care said;
“I thought he (Marcus Smith) was brilliant (at the Rugby World Cup), to be asked to play in a completely different position, to do it as well as he did. I don’t think there’s many players out there that can do that. He’s back in his favoured position. I think it’s not selling any secrets by telling that he wants to play 10, and he wants to play 10 for England.
“I know that, but I think he completely understands how good Owen is, and he is our (England) captain. How brilliant he was in that tournament, that he fitted in where he was needed. But yeah, them two both going at it this weekend will be amazing. I remember the showdown last year at Tottenham, and you know, I think a lot of people, more people watched that game because of that.
“So you know, it’s great for the whole of rugby, English rugby over here, that you’ve got two of the most well known players going at each other. Two players that are very good friends, and help each other an awful lot off the pitch as well.”
Care then discussed Smith’s determined drive for the England fly half jersey, and his want to continue to impress Steve Borthwick. The 2024 Six Nations are less than four months away, with key Premiership matches like this presenting opportune moments for Smith to stake his claim for the number 10 spot.
“He (Smith) definitely wants it now.” Care added. “(Smith) Wants to play as many times as he can, as many minutes as he can in an England shirt. But I think one thing for him, I know how respectful he is of Owen (Farrell), and how much he rightly admires him as a player, as a friend, and as a colleague.
“So they learn, I think from being in camp with them, they’re always learning off each other. Same with George (Ford), the three of them are little squirrels around the laptop, learning more and more from each thing that they see.
“Which is amazing to have that, those three stand-out players ended up in the one position. Unfortunately, all of them can’t play, but when they get back to the clubs, it’s a chance to show up, put your hand up and say to the coaches for the Six Nations ‘give me a go’. So we’re very lucky to have them.”
Despite how much mutual respect the England stars of Saracens and Harlequins have for one another, Care admitted that for the 80 minutes at the Stoop it will be all business. There are numerous key battles across this local rivalry, as Care rallied off some of the top stars set to take centre stage this weekend.
“I’m looking forward to it. Obviously, I’m good pals with Jamie (George) Owen (Farrell) and Elliot (Daly), all of them really. So it’ll probably be quite strange playing against them, having spent that much time in each other’s pockets.
“But, as soon as they put a Sarries shirt, and we put on a Quins shirt, we won’t be friends for eighty minutes, I’m sure. But it’d be done in a nice way, and we’ll have a beer after. So yeah, looking forward to seeing a few of them.”
“It’s always good when you see those battles. And there’s them all over the park. Ben Earl and Alex Dombrandt or Will Evans, whatever position Ben’s playing. So you know, Maro (Itoje) against Joe Launchbury. All over there’s battles, and they’ve got internationals all through their squad. So we know we’re going to have to play very well this weekend, we will pitch up because of the game it is.”
A newcomer to the Stoop, former Wasps scrum-half Will Porter has been steadily making a name for himself during Care’s absence from Harlequins. Porter was picked up by Bristol Bears following the financial collapse of Wasps, before making his debut for Quins in the Premiership Rugby Cup victory over Saracens back in October. Whilst Care was away in France for the Rugby World Cup, Porter was steadily establishing his presence amongst the Harlequins halfback ranks.
Care returned to Harlequins in last weekend’s victory over Leicester Tigers, and took a seat on the bench at Welford Road. Care admitted to have been very impressed by Porter in previous encounters, and was taken aback by the scrum-half’s stunning solo try against the Tigers. Porter spotted a gap in the Leicester defence, faked a pass to Smith, before skipping passed the tackle attempts of England bruisers Ollie Chessum and Dan Cole on his way through to score.
“I think he’s been brilliant.” Care said. “From playing against him in the last few years at Wasps. It’s obviously unfortunate what happened to them, but whenever it was Dan (Robson) or him playing. I remember he stepped me a treat once at the Ricoh (Arena).
“Really good player, quick good kicking game, a good leader around the pitch, he likes to boss the forwards around as well. So yeah, I have been really impressed with Will, great to be working alongside him. Hopefully he plays a few, gets a few games this year.”
“I was about to come on, and I remember I got my kit off early. And then Will scored the try, and I said ‘you can’t take him off straightaway after that’. So I put my coat back on quickly and sat down.
But no, it was a great scrum-half try. Just opportunistic, ball bobbled out, he’s a strong boy and he’s quick, and he got the finish.
“I think he’s played so well at the start of the season, he deserved that try to go over for that moment, which was a key try for us to get a good win. So yeah, I’m blown away by how good he’s been, and how he’s helped this team. He will play a massive part of this year for us.”
Despite the positional rivalry that Care shares with Porter, the 300+ capped Harlequin is delighted to see his fellow scrum-half consistently hit top marks in the famous quarters. Harlequins have lifted the Premiership title twice, with Care playing a key role in both the 2012 and 2021 triumphs.
The 36-year-old believes that the secret to silverware success is squad depth, and thinks that Quins are in a strong position to contend for the title come the end of the season. Currently top of the Premiership with four wins out of five, Care expressed his excitement regarding the current crop of talent for the 2023/24 season.
“I obviously want to play, so I need to force the coaches hand to play me. But I’ve also been around long enough that I agree that if players are playing well, that you shouldn’t change things. So I think hopefully now we’ve got three or four scrum halves in the squad that can really press, and I think that the strength in depth is probably the big thing we talked about earlier.
“For me, looking at it from the outside, it kind of looks like we’ve got the best squad we’ve had in a fair few years. So our biggest opportunity, we’ve probably had, to have a proper crack at trying to win this (Premiership) again. It takes a full squad effort to do that, we know that from the two times I’ve done it, so I’m glad that Will’s playing so well, genuinely.
“Some people say you know, ‘you probably don’t want (that)’, but I do, I want Will to be brilliant for Quinn’s, it will make me want to try even harder to stay in the team and get in the team. Whatever role he or I play, or Lewis (Gjaltema) or Max (Green) plays, then we’ll try our best to get a win.”
Outisde of the contention for the number nine jersey, Joe Marler is set to run out for a milestone 200th Premiership appearance this weekend. The loose-head prop has not taken his foot off the gas, going straight from the Rugby World Cup to the Premiership, with recent run-outs against Newcastle and Leicester Tigers. On eof Care’s best friends, the man known as ‘DC’ was full of praise for the England prop.
“My admiration for that man is astronomical. What he puts his body through, what he has to do on a rugby pitch, and how he does it consistently, week after week, day after day, like you say, he hasn’t had a break yet (from the Rugby World Cup).
“He’s gone straight through, as we’ve said earlier, probably five months worth of work, which, you know, you only see the seven or the eight games, but the amount of training that he does, to get his body as big as it is, and as strong, and as powerful as resilient as he is. He’s one of a kind, he really is, on and off the pitch.
“I’m probably biased that he’s one of my best mates. But I know how much he cares about the club and how much he loves the club. And he puts his body on the line, day after day to do it. For me, he’s still one of the best players in the world in his position, which is mad considering he’s retired about six times. But yeah, he’s our Joe, he’s Quin’s through and through.
“I didn’t know that it was his 200th Premiership game, but yeah, it doesn’t surprise me that he’s hit that milestone. But to do that, in playing the position that he plays, it’s a different sport to what I do. I can never do what he does, so full credit to Joe.”