Harlequins head over to Paris this weekend, for an exciting Champions Cup contest with Racing 92. Quins kick off their campaign in style at the La Defense Arena, after rounding off their Premiership block by defeating the league leaders Sale Sharks.
Harlequins hit their fearsome top gear last Friday at the Stoop, with the famous quarters flooding in the tries for a 36-3 walkover. Marcus Smith was back to his brilliant best, and got the better of England positional rival George Ford under the Twickenham Stoop lights. After ending their opening Premiership run in fine fettle, Quins have to transfer this winning form across the English Channel and into European competition.
Harlequins Director of Rugby Billy Millard believes that many stars of his squad shone their brightest against the Sharks, with the competition for places reaching boiling point in the frost-bitten training sessions. Millard discussed how some top performers will miss out on seats for the EuroStar, as he will be forced to make some tough decisions when picking his match day squad to face Racing 92.
“I think a lot of people had their best games of the year last week, like you’re looking at Will Evans you’re looking at Sam Riley. Dino Lamb was good. Danny (Care) and Marcus (Smith) were strong. Andre (Esterhuizen) had his best game this year. Will Joseph was outstanding. Caden, (Tyrone) Green, Nick David, like everyone played well last week so I think everyone’s sort of caught up, for people coming back from injuries like Tyrone and Caden. As I said the World Cup boys are well and truly settled in our system now. So yeah, we’re in a good place.”
“There’s definitely been some knocks on the door, everyone wants in. I think you know, that’s a sign of a healthy squad, there’s some guys who are going to miss out who are really important for us, but also really good players at this level. So, we’re in a good spot there with with depth, but everyone wants in”
Despite the threats that Millard has within the Harlequins ranks, one of Racing’s latest acquisitions is getting ready to re-unite with some former teammates and local rivals. Henry Arundell or more than acquainted with the Quins players, having played with the likes of Will Joseph, Chandler Cunningham-South and Lovejoy Chawatama at London Irish last season. The former South West London rival to Harlequins, Arundell is ready to leave the visitors hot on his trail once again, in their upcoming trip to Paris.
Millard discussed how his side have become accustomed to Arundell’s skillset in recent seasons, and they know what to expect from the electric 21-year-old.
“I think we know him well. We know his threats. I think the boys are excited, you know, to play against him, he’s had some pretty big moments for them since he’s been there. I think he got three in his first game for them. So, we haven’t focused on him too much, because if you focus on him, you’re missing the other 14 guys who are also outstanding. So look, we know what he can do, and there’s been a bit of chatter around it, but it’s not front and centre.”
After crossing over for a brace of tries against Sale Sharks, Will Joseph has thrown his hat in the ring to join his former Exiles teammate Arundell at future England camps. The outside centre void left by departing Harlequin Joe Marchant, has welcomed the likes of Joseph to step up and stake a claim for the vacant jersey. Millard expressed how he does not have the answers regarding Joseph’s immediate international future, but laid out a road map which would get the centre up to the next level.
“You need to get to (Steve) Borthwick for that. But what he does have to do, is backup that performance again. He set himself a good standard, I spoke to Les Kiss the other day, and he watched the game and said, you know, that’s kind of where Will is at his best. So it was great to see, he was he was outstanding against Sale, but he needs to back that up, and back that up, and back that up, to go to that next level, which he’s capable of.”
Millard could well be set to hand some upcoming young talents their Champions Cup debuts, should the aspiring players continue to progress at such a rate of knots. The Harlequins DoR re-wound the clock back almost a year to the day, when a promising young Quins talent made his Champions Cup debut on the road in Paris.
“Fin Baxter made his debut against Racing last year.” Millard said. I think you just got to treat it like any other game. They’ll get caught up in the buzz from the senior players, and Fin actually really stepped forward. So look, I don’t think you approach it any other way.
“It’s just a different league, playing in different places. But the senior boys realise a young guy who’s making his debut at this level, and they’ll get around them as well during the week. I’m not sure out of our group. How many will be be making their debut, but the week after there might be one or two.”
The 2022/23 Champions Cup campaign witnessed two excitement clashes between Harlequins and Racing 92. The sides first met at the Stoop, with Quins recording a 14-10 victory over their Parisian visitors. The reverse fixture in the following January produced a 30-29 classic, with the nail-biting match ending in favour of Racing. Thinking back to their two meetings from last season, Millard was impressed by his sides performances both at home and on the road. However, he recognises how the added strength of new-coming coach Stuart Lancaster, and Springboks Captain Siya Kolisi has re-shaped an already sturdy structure.
“We went there last year and performed really well. So you know, the forwards are looking forward to getting back into that indoor stadium. But yeah, like you’ve got to tweak a few things but again, that physicality and execution under pressure is is going to be critical like in any game. But as I said, when they click, and they have been, they’re a force.”
“Well, you know, they’re an extremely strong squad. Obviously with (Stuart) Lancaster in there, they’ve got a new coach in place. So we’ve noticed a few differences. You know, they’re playing very well. So again, we’re under no illusions about the challenge ahead.”