We are set for another entertaining clash under the patented ‘Friday night lights’, with the new Premiership leaders Sale Sharks heading to the Stoop for a clash with Harlequins. The Sharks claimed the league’s top spot in their narrow 11-9 win over Bath Rugby, whilst Harlequins just missed out on victory against Northampton Saints.
The Premiership’s entertainers came up just short against the Saints, with a 10-try thriller favoured 36-33 to Northampton. Coming off the back of the defeat at Franklin’s Gardens, Harlequins Director of Rugby Billy Millard added heightened attention, towards stopping the penalty count at crucial moments.
Harlequins scored five tries against Northampton, but ill-discipline contributed to their overall defeat. Contrastingly, Sale fly half George Ford capitalised on Bath’s defensive errors and kicked the crucial points off the tee for the win last weekend. Millard is keen to avoid deja-vu of giving away 14 points from poor discipline, and enduring the fate suffered by the men in blue, black and white.
“So I think you just need to trust that was a one off or two off (mistakes). But then, there are some other bits and pieces around, a couple of defensive reads, a couple of penalties in key situations, the normal stuff that we usually dig into. But you know, they’re 14-point ‘gimmies’ so I guess, Christmas presents, early Christmas presents (for Northampton). The end of the day, that was the main indicator why we lost.”
“Obviously for all sorts of reasons, the penalty count is a big thing every week, for all different reasons. But you know, most teams have a sharpshooter, George (Ford) is definitely one of them. Letting them into our zones where they can get a driving maul, penalty count is critical. So we need to be on the right side of that.”
“We’re about to go away from the Premiership for a couple of weeks. And as I said before, we weren’t happy with our performance last time at the Stoop, (38-10 defeat to Saracens). We’ve got a great rivalry with Sale at the moment, they are leading the way, so yeah, it’s a big one and we’re up for it.”
As Millard highlighted, there is one more weekend of Premiership action before the league takes a break for the Champions and Challenge Cup competitions. With such a staked fixture list, the top sides need to have excellent squad depth, to perform at the best in all of the competitions. Millard recognises this, and praised his up and coming front rowers who have been putting pressure on the likes of England internationals Joe Marler and Jack Walker.
“I think you picked out two rippers there, in Fin (Baxter) and Nathan (Jibulu). They’re putting big pressure on. In my head, they’re not sort of young up and comers, they’re a massive part of our senior group, who will put big pressure on the more experienced boys above them. I think they’re ready to go, and will be a big part of what we’re doing at the top end.
“I think Nathan gives us that genuine carry in the heart of heavy, heavy ‘D’ (defence). And Fin’s just getting better and better, you know, working with the (Joe) Marler’s and (Will) Collier’s, and with Adam Jones as well. They’re both coming along really well.”
Harlequins wing Cadan Murley is also back and firing, with last weekend’s trip to Northampton being his first match of the 2023/24 Premiership season. The 24-year-old grabbed his opening try of the campaign after just four minutes at Franklin’s Gardens, as he powered through Alex Mitchell with an excellent showing of strength.
Murley had been side-lined with injury since Harlequins’ Premiership Rugby Cup win over Saracens back in October, and has been spending plenty of time building himself up in the gym ahead of his return. The winger is enjoying his time out wide, but discussed how he wouldn’t turn down the opportunity to run out in a different position, should the opportunity present itself akin to his Quin’s teammate Marcus Smith’s recent full-back run for England.
“I had a few things I wanted to focus on off the pitch in the gym. My speed being one of them, my power being the other. So, my ability to get up in the air, challenge for high balls. That was one thing that Steve (Borthwick) mentioned, we (wingers) need to be good in the air. So yeah, that’s a big part of my game, so I was focusing on that. And obviously, power in the carry has always been sort of my super strengths and I wanted to cement that further.”
“I don’t know if it’s been too much in discussion (changing position), I’m enjoying my time on the wing. But yeah, I’d always be open it open to it, just trying to improve my skill set in as many ways as I can. So if there was a call for that, then I’d love to give it a go. But no, for the moment i’m just focusing on those things that I’ve been told to work on.”
Murley ended the 2022/23 Premiership season as the league’s top try scorer, as he crossed over for 15 tries in a stunning campaign. Despite the delayed start to this season, the winger is eager to build upon his try record, but admitted that he doesn’t want any easy walk-ins in his push to return to the England squad. Murley is ready to fill the England vacancy left by Gloucester stalwart Jonny May, who announced his international retirement following the Rugby World Cup.
“I’d love to (score more tries), but obviously, with a few less games, it might be a bit tougher to get that 16 (tries). Look, I don’t really think about it, I want to do what’s best for the team. But, if I can get my hands on the ball and get on the end of a few more moves, then yeah, I’m not going to complain.”
“Well Josh Bassett gave me a little ‘gimmie’, i think. I had to buy (at) a few socials, his brand of drink off him, in payment. But no, I don’t really want ‘gimmies’ I want to be working hard for my tries, and proving that I can score myself.”
“I think I’m always going to have that drive, to represent my country is one of my dreams. So I’m always going to aspire for that and no matter how close or how far away I am, I’m always going to try and put my best foot forward and show what I can do to Steve (Borthwick).”
“That’s the case for all us young wingers, it’s whoever is going to grasp the opportunity and take it. So I learned a lot off Jonny (May) when I was in there, in the training camp, so hopefully I can use that and become as good an international winger as he did.”
The competition for the vacant England jersey is getting the best out of Murley, as he competes against his positional rivals at both his own club and across the Premiership. The league is brimming with exciting young England eligible wingers, with Harlequins’ Friday night opponents being no different. Murley discussed the Sale Sharks’ talents across the back-three, and the fierce competition he faces to keep his name stamped on the famous quarters.
“The way they play is probably a bit different to the way we play, but they get the job done. They’ve got George Ford at the helm at 10, who puts them in the right areas and they’ve got exciting wingers as well. So we know they can play in Arron Reed and Tom Roebuck, two young English wingers who have been going well. So, it’s a good challenge for myself and the rest of the back-three.”
“There’s been an edge in training this year. A bit of nervousness, because you know, there’s other people hot on your heels. The likes of the young boys as well, especially. I think, the boys have stood out, we’ve spoken about Fin (Baxter) and Nathan (Jibulu) already, but Oscar Beard has stepped up massively. You’ve got Will Joseph who’s come in and brought a new dimension to that 13 shirt. Obviously, Louis (Lynagh) is still young, and myself, Nick (David) Tyrone (Green), we all we all want to play. So yeah, there’s been a really good ‘bite’ to training this year.”
Harlequins get the opportunity to enjoy some Friday night rugby tomorrow, with the Stoop set to be lit up in a sea of the red, blue, brown and grey quarters. Murley relishes every opportunity he gets to play in front of a packed Quins crowd, and help his side make amends for their last run-out on home turf.
“I was in the stands watching the Sarries game, and the boys after the game works absolutely gutted. We didn’t prove to our fans what we can do, so we’re focusing on ourselves this week and we know if we get things right we can challenge them (Sale).
“We know we can challenge the top teams if we get our principles right, our kicking game right, and our attack, because when we fire we know we can score tries against any defence, even if it is one of the best defences in the league. So, we’re excited for the challenge, but we know what’s coming and that we’ve got to be up for it.”