LEINSTER’S POOL TWO rivals Harlequins will kick off the new Champions Cup era of European rugby at home against Castres on Friday.
While there is still a fair bit of rugby to be played before Conor O’Shea takes on his home province, Quins’ back-to-back meetings with the eastern province in December look likely to be the pivotal matches in the pool.
Any Premiership side with aspirations of reaching the knock-out stage will always target fixtures against former champions, but O’Shea’s roots will add some extra intrigue.
Like Leinster, ‘Quins come into the new European competition still searching for real form or rhythm in their season. Having won three and lost three games this season, Friday’s 22 – 16 defeat to Leicester Tigers at Welford Road leaves them sitting seventh in Premiership table – level on points with Tigers.
As the win-loss ratio suggests, they have been patchy throughout the opening six games of the season. Though they could not have been accused of a slow start having scored 20 first-half points against London Irish, the Exiles were almost successful in reeling Quins in before being halted at 20 – 15 in Twickenham.
The lowlight of their season came a week later. Home fans at The Stoop were left with only the minor solace that – had it not been for two try-saving tackles from Mike Brown – the result would have been much worse than the 39 – 0 reversal against Saracens.
A fortnight later, O’Shea went so far as to call their defeat to Exeter Chiefs at Sandy Park “embarrassing”. Despite the presence of Chris Robshaw and Joe Marler in the pack, the London side have shown a worryingly soft underbelly at times in this campaign and that has led to them looking seriously disorganised when scrambling to defend in wide channels.
However, when they do wrestle control of the gainline, they will have a platform to unleash an exciting back-line. We mentioned Brown’s tackling above, but it is his playmaking which ‘Quins profit from most. The fullback is never hesitant to open the door for the pacier wingers in the shape of Marland Yarde, Asaeli Tikoirotuma or Ollie Lindsay-Hague (in the absence of the injured Ugo Monye).
And although Nick Evans and Ben Botica are solid, but not always completely reliable from the kicking tee, Danny Care is ever-vigilant around the fringes. So when he’s not eyeing up a snipe, he will happily snap at three points if they are on offer.
If all that sounds a little negative on O’Shea’s side it’s because we expect better from them. Care’s opportunistic drop-goal above came in a hard-fought win over Wasps while they also routed London Welsh with 52 unanswered points.
By the time December comes around they will no doubt be a more fluent side, but on current form they pose little threat in Pool 2. Current form, though, can be quickly turned around in Europe.