Harlequins hooker Sam Riley is chomping at the bit for Sunday, as his side heads over to Paris for their Champions Cup opener against Racing 92. Harlequins and Racing are familiar with one another, after they traded narrow pool stage wins throughout last season’s campaign.
Harlequins hosted the Parisians at the Stoop for the first clash, and recorded a hard-fought 14-10 victory against the French giants. The return fixture was equally as compelling, and went right to the wire for a 30-29 Racing victory at the La Defense Arena.
Despite his best efforts, Riley missed out on the action against Racing from 12 months ago due to a combination of untimely injuries and the pecking order ranking at the Stoop. However, we are now a calendar year later, and Riley gearing up amongst the leading Harlequins hookers for the short trip across the English Channel. Speaking in Harlequins’ mid-week media event, Riley discussed how he is eager to join the fray after missing out last season, whilst competition for places remains fierce.
“I think those are the games you want to be in, and we spoke about this week getting psyched up for it. Obviously, Racing’s stadium, it’s a lovely stadium I’ve never been personally but I think from the lads who played last year said it was amazing, it was great atmosphere especially with the Quins supporters being in the corner just supporting throughout the game, and you can hear the chanting throughout. Yeah, it’s what we said, it’s the games we want to playing in, playing the best teams in the world. So yeah, it’s great.”
“Last year, we were disappointed that we potentially didn’t get more out of it. We thought we had a good performance, but ultimately didn’t get on the right side of scoresheet. But I think, it’s a great opportunity to go and play over there. Very, very cool stadium, some big players, big names on their team. And that’s what we’ll do, (we’ll) pick ourselves up against the best. So we’ll take confidence from last year from putting out a good performance, but we need to do better this year”
“Yeah, it’s (training) been good. It’s been tough as well, we’ve got a lot of competition, all throughout the squad. Especially hookers, we’ve got loads of young hookers, and everyone’s pushing each other every week. Which means that, if you’re off the ball, you might not be playing next week. So it’s really pushed each other and it makes trading competitive. I’ve really enjoyed it, played a lot of rugby, it’s what I love doing. So yeah, it’s been great, and having a quite a few good wins on the back of that has been great.”
Speaking of the pressure for places, Riley discussed how the Quins embody an excellent club culture which the entire squad has bought into. The Champions Cup has only elevated this, and has brought an added “bite” around the competition for a seat on the EuroStar over to Paris. The pads have been hit with an extra punch, and the set-plays have been run with added fizz on the passes, as Harlequins enjoyed a special training session at the Twickenham Stoop, away from their regular stomping grounds in Guildford.
“Yeah, it’s been good. I think what we’ve said all season is that a squad effort is hugely important to win anything, to win games, to win the Premiership, Europe anything. And at the moment, we’ve got a really good culture that if they’re not playing, they’re pushing the pushing the start, the bench, the non-23, everyone, everyone’s buying into it.
“We’re getting the results because of that. If they’re off it, we’re off it, then we’re going to slip and we’re not going to be our best. So it’s hugely important that everyone’s bringing a bit of bite, bring a bit of competition because it pushes everyone on to be better.”
Harlequins enter the Champions Cup off the back of a significant win. Quins ran roughshod on Sale Sharks last Friday night, and racked up a 36-3 hammering of the Premiership leaders. Riley could not understate the importance of this win, with Harlequins re-finding their form before embarking on this upcoming trip into Europe. Quins have the aim of becoming the latest Premiership club to lift the Champions Cup, and add an elusive trophy to their cabinet in South West London.
“We had two not great performances, and didn’t really get the points that we necessarily wanted to, so we knew that if we could finish out against the league leaders at home before, we got into Europe would be huge. We’ve taken a lot of confidence for that, it was great. It was exactly what we needed and the lads performed to a man, it was great.”
“We’re going to take each game as it comes, but there’s no point in going into a tournament or a cup or anything if you don’t want to win it. So we’re going to take each game as it comes, but we want to win it. We want to be up there, with the other Premiership teams who have won it.”
Racing 92 are also looking for their first Champions Cup title, having left the final with silver medals on three occasions. Their latest trip to the grand stage, saw the Parisians defeated by Exeter Chiefs in 2020, with the Devonshire club’s triumph standing as the last time an English side has lifted the famous silverware. Racing have certainly bolstered their squad ahead of this new campaign, as despite letting fly half Finn Russell depart for Bath, they welcome Springboks captain Siya Kolisi, England winger Henry Arundell, and former England Head Coach Stuart Lancaster to the French capital.
Currently sat at the perch of the Top 14, Racing enter the Champions Cup campaign with a wave of momentum. Lancaster has expressed his desire to bring a first-ever Champions Cup trophy to the La Defense Arena, with Harlequins gearing up for a challenging test this Sunday. Riley discussed how this is exactly the type of side that the Londoners want to face, in order for them to reach that next level as a European title contender.
“I think playing obviously different teams, different style of rugby is exciting. Also playing in a different country and a different stadium, a different environment you’ve never played before, the excitement and yet, we want to test ourselves. We want to be one of the top teams in Europe, but we’ve got to prove and we’ve got to do against the best sides, in France, for instance.”
“I think for us we see as a big opportunity to get a big a win in France. So yeah, it’s a good team, so I think for us we’ll take each game as it comes.”
“There’s a different feel to it, (Champions Cup) there’s more excitement. It’s not like you’re going week, on week, on week. You’ve got 20 games in a (Premiership) season, you’ve got what, 4, 5 or 6 (Champions Cup games). You don’t have that many opportunities, So it’s hugely exciting, when the lads get the opportunity, they’ll enjoy it.”