December 8, 2021

The Times: Fish, microchips and gymnastics: inside the unconventional Harlequins camp

Matt Dickinson spends two days at the club’s trailblazing HQ to uncover the methods that transformed them from also-rans to Premiership champions.

Anyanwu, centre, goes through his paces during a training session in which there is no tackling to be seen

Danny Care, a giant André Esterhuizen and the rest of the Harlequins backs shuffle into a meeting room. “Hi, I’m Marcus,” the new superstar of English rugby says with a firm handshake, even though Marcus Smith is fast heading past the point of needing to make introductions.

For the next 20 minutes they run through the attacking strategies that will be needed to overcome Leicester Tigers. The players throw around different ideas, and code words, as they look at video clips.

Nick “Snap” Evans, the attack coach, points out that Quins converted only 17 per cent of line breaks in losing 19-22 to London Irish at the weekend; falling short of the penetrative heights that have made Quins the league’s great entertainers. “We will get chances on Sunday,” he says. “We’ll have to take them.”

If it seems bold to invite a journalist inside the camp in a week when they have just stumbled at home and face a tough trip to the league leaders, it also speaks of a confidence that goes beyond the trophy they won in June.

You may think Harlequins already wrote the best possible story when they transformed a listless campaign to win the Gallagher Premiership in astonishing circumstances but perhaps the next question is even more intriguing: how do you follow that epic finale?

How did the same players, coaches and staff who were struggling so unhappily this time last year become such thrilling champions? And what do they do next?

“We know what we did to change it all, so we know it wasn’t a fluke,” Adam “Bomb” Jones, the mighty former Wales prop who is now Quins’ scrum coach, says. But how to prove it?

It is in striving to answer those questions that I spent a couple of days talking about microchips and fish and chips; watching Joe Marler prove surprisingly adept at head tennis; and staring at the messages on the wall at the training ground in Guildford.

“Vision — to be the most admired rugby club in Europe.

“Purpose — to entertain, excel and inspire by being true to the Quins way.”

And underneath: “Tempo, Relate, Unconventional, Enjoyment.”

Words on a wall, but what do they mean?

Training The week starts on Tuesday with football. By the time the session finishes 50 minutes later there has been ball-handling, shadow play, forwards walking through lineout moves as if in a slow-motion Strictly Come Dancing — and not a tackle to be seen. Training will increase in physicality but there are only two more sessions before the game. Quins train only three days a week.

Scrapping practice on the day before a match was one of the first moves after the sacking of Paul Gustard as head coach in January. No one wants to dump on “Gussy” but, equally, no one disputes that the change was transformative.

Suddenly the shackles were off. Hour-long meetings became 20 minutes, maximum. A stifled game became liberated. The players were given a voice and one of the first things they asked was why they would come in 24 hours before a match, spending perhaps three hours in a car, to go through some stretches and to rehearse the moves they had been working on all week. So that was it, an end to the “captain’s run”, as it had been called for decades. No training the day before a match? You could see it as unconventional or perhaps just common sense.

Acupuncture and the best possible sports science are used to aid players’ recovery

Science As well as the fewest training days, Quins believe they have, quite significantly, the least contact in practice of any leading club owing to the mouthguards that contain a microchip that provides live monitoring of linear force, G-force and rotational force felt by each player in every collision. The more they talk about the Protecht system — which has reduced training contact by as much as 70 per cent — the more astonishing it seems that the mouthguards have not already been mandated across the league.

A sport belatedly waking up to a crisis around brain damage and player welfare needs to act, especially as it is explained that this is not only about big hits to the head but the ability to measure the sub-concussive blows to the body that, looking at the graphs from the microchips, are very much felt in the skull.

“I played with a lot of the guys who are now suing the game because of signs of dementia which is awful, so I have to be pleased that we are using this technology and trusting it,” Care, the former England scrum half, says.

To the medical staff at Quins, it seems beyond coincidence that they have enjoyed the best player availability that anyone can remember, though it may take another couple of years to compile reliable data. The technology would not be effective without the willingness of the coaches to listen to Mike Lancaster, head of medical services, when he says that, for example, there can be only five live scrums in a week or that certain players need placing in one of the white bibs that signals they are not to engage in any contact. The previous regime still needed some persuading.

Harlequins players use mouthguards with microchips

“Every club has players who say they are fine even if they are in pieces, a warrior like Will Evans,” Lancaster says. “Now we can measure the incredible hits and intensity. We can put in a recovery strategy, using the hyperbaric chamber but also an individual training schedule light on contact.”

Gareth “Gaz” Tong, head of strength and conditioning, explains that with much less contact and an extra day off he can do more explosive speed work that suits Quins’ style.

Weekly “Bozo” sessions — no one can explain the name — involve three teams rotating in a nine-minute hyperintense block of running rugby. Rather than smash themselves as preparation for the inevitable physical battle with the Tigers, Quins take the opposite approach.

“I feel better than I did when I was 25,” Care says. He believes that this system helps to explain the freshness behind remarkable title-winning comebacks to beat Bristol Bears and Exeter Chiefs.

The mouthguards have also revealed the dangers of poor tackling technique, and forces felt by players who get it wrong, so Quins hire the Gymnastics Factory, a purpose-built centre in Guildford with a sprung floor, for specialist training.

“Being unconventional is not about wearing a jester’s hat,” Tabai Matson, the senior coach, says. “It’s trying to be smart.”

Flannery, the defence and lineout coach, leads a video analysis session at the Guildford centre

Coaching Matson, the former New Zealand and Fiji international, has worked all around the world as a rugby coach. When it comes to unconventional, you could start with his appointment at Quins and the offer of a permanent position rather than the usual fixed-term contract.

“You can’t say to someone, ‘We want you to build a long-term future and establish the strongest academy pathway into the first team’ and then offer a two-year deal as if the clock is already ticking,” Laurie Dalrymple, the chief executive, explains.

No less unconventional is that the fourth of Matson’s interviews before he secured the job was with the four coaches already running the team — in effect interviewing their future boss. “It’s the first job I’ve taken where they already knew where they were going,” Matson says.

Have you heard the one about the Kiwi, Welshman, Irishman and Englishman? It could be the start of a joke except it ended up with the Premiership title.

After the axing of Gustard, Evans (attack coach), Jones (scrum), Jerry Flannery (defence and lineout) and Charlie Mulchrone (kicking) became a committee sharing out responsibility. It was an experiment and a challenge to sport’s preoccupation with one big alpha boss. “Weird,” Jones says of the arrangement, “but we trusted each other. And we made a pact that when the shit hit the fan we wouldn’t panic.” Each would have final word on any issue related to their own department.

“Maybe our naivety as young coaches, and less pressure given where we were, we felt we could try things out,” Evans says of the liberation he felt as a skilful former Quins back suddenly given freedom to explore an attacking game.

“Danny, Marcus, [Alex] Dombrandt, you can’t put those guys in a box,” Evans adds. “We are not a hammer team who smashes down walls. We are a scalpel. We have to cut teams.”

Matson says he came in with a remit not to shake up this system but to ask the “ignorant questions” that would force everyone to re-examine last season’s success, and to unearth any anomalies.

If this was the healthiest roster ever, could that be replicated? Success comes at a price when players are promoted to international rugby, so what would be the impact of losing Smith, Marler, Dombrandt and Joe Marchant to England and, potentially, for nine out of 22 league games?

Matson also counted that, in the past two seasons, Quins had played nine and seven fixtures in the rain. Last year it was zero in an unprecedented campaign that ran into late summer, suiting the Quins style.

“You arrive and think, ‘I hope they don’t have the victory disease,’ ” Matson says. With opposition much more alert this season to the Quins style, and better prepared defensively, they know they will have to keep adapting.

Culture There seems a risk of an overload of voices given the club also has Billy Millard as director of rugby. To have so much coaching input requires everyone pulling in the same direction. But which way?

To help to answer that question, Harlequins turned to Owen Eastwood. An expert in leadership and particularly in cultures, he has worked with the England football team, the South Africa cricket team and now sits on the Quins board. After canvassing 55 people connected with Quins and doing a deep dive into the history, he gathered the hierarchy and players — of men’s and title-winning women’s squad — to tell stories about their ancestors. “It might sound sappy to some but stories that give you goosebumps,” Jones says.

Can the tale of Ronnie Poulton, an Oxbridge and England rugby player killed at Ypres in the First World War mean anything more than one hundred years later to a lock from Pretoria? “If you stand in a group of 50 people, it won’t mean something to everyone,” Stephan Lewies, the Quins captain, says. “But I know what it meant to me.”

The lock tells of Poulton, renowned for his dazzling runs for Quins, turning up late for an England game at Twickenham after a family saw him on a train and asked him to sit at the bedside of their dying child. “It only came out after he died when his sister told people,” Lewies explains. “What we took from that story is that in a world where everything is on Instagram, you shouldn’t do something because it looks good. Do it because it’s the right thing to do.”

Will it help when they are scrapping in the last five minutes against the Tigers? What does it mean to talk about a tribe, and culture? “When it gets dark and you lose a couple of games and people get disgruntled, that’s when you really see the culture,” Matson says.

Third in the table as they head into the winter months, perhaps it is about to face its ultimate test.

Care, loomed over by Marler, says there is a renewed sense of joy at the club now

Playing Care remembers wondering this time last year if he wanted to continue playing rugby. Sport in a pandemic was not much fun and Quins were going nowhere. But Gustard departed, everything changed and, six months later, he was at Twickenham holding a trophy

There are no guarantees that moment will come again even with the best sports science — or, indeed, the weekly bonding session among the players, mobile phones banned so that they actually talk to each other, and the fish and chip van due to arrive after training. All part of the ‘R’ part of the TRUE acronym and mission statement — Tempo, Relate, Unconventional, Enjoyment — introduced to the club under Conor O’Shea a decade ago and now refreshed.

In elite sport, Care knows team spirit can be illusory, or all too brief. He remembers securing the title in 2012 and the sense of it being frittered away. “We had a bit of success and then nothing,” he says, ruefully.

Will it be different this time? Care, 34, is already certain that it is different given that, from being close to giving up, he now says that he wants to play as long as possible.

Care says that there is a renewed joy about being at Quins. Fast rugby, coaches who listen, an attacking mindset, low contact, not to mention three days off: he tells his team-mates not to take it for granted. “I tell them, ‘We’ve got a great gig here, we’ve got it all so don’t take the piss,’ ” he says. “My last big thing before I go is I want to help them win year after year. And then I want to sit in the stands with a beer, enjoying it from there.”

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