On the evidence of Harlequins’ last two Premiership matches it is easy to see why Leicester were linked with Paul Gustard this time last year. While they have performed only in patches in both Harlequins look towards 2020 with renewed optimism after edging past Gloucester and Wasps in matches they would have lost before Gustard arrived.
And what Leicester would not do for a win, in whatever shape it may come, against Harlequins today. The Tigers under Geordan Murphy, with whom Gustard shared a house in the late 90s when both called Welford Road home, may have produced their best 60 minutes of the season against Exeter last weekend but still finished empty-handed. The strain is being felt by Murphy but clearly Leicester’s problems are deep-rooted. The relative success of Leicester City is not helping in one sense, illustrated by the fact that last weekend’s defeat by Exeter was for first time this season they had attracted more than 20,000. Ultimately it was a fifth Premiership defeat in six matches.
Steve Borthwick is expected to join at some point this season from England but precisely when remains unclear despite the fact that the forwards coach Mark Bakewell has already left. Mike Ford remains in the picture, looming over Murphy’s shoulder, but those close to the club have expressed fears that the coaching staff are unable to put their finger on why, with such a star-studded squad, relegation is a more likely prospect than the play-offs this season.
Murphy is in an unenviable position. Like a gambler who can explain precisely why the horse he backed did not win, so Murphy has become skilled at giving his well-reasoned rationale as to why the Tigers have lost. He has had to because it is an outcome with which he is becoming increasingly familiar. He has the backing of the Leicester board who are desperate to see someone who has spent more than 20 years at the club as player and coach succeed but another defeat in Harlequins’ annual festive fixture at Twickenham today and the new year is not one to look forward to.
“It’s another stand-alone game for us,” said Murphy. “We can’t afford to look too far down the line. We have to focus on the game in hand. Harlequins played some fantastic rugby at Wasps last weekend and came away with a win. Myself and Paul shared a house for a couple of years when he came to the club as a young back-rower and I arrived from Ireland. We had a lot of good times and it’s great to see him doing so well. Now the result at the weekend is all-important, so we’re focusing on doing the best job that we can for our teams.”
The Harlequins scrum-half Danny Care is being kind when he says that all the Tigers need is a win to kick-start their season and he is right to point out that their halfbacks were playing in the World Cup final less than two months ago. Just as Wasps, another former leading light of the Premiership, fell to pieces when Harlequins seized the initiative however, Leicester’s mental fragility can be played upon at Twickenham.
“We can’t wait to get stuck into with a Leicester side who are struggling at the moment,” said Care. “We know how good they can be, I think they showed in patches against Exeter that they have got some world class players. We’ll try and do what we always try to do which is start well, and if a team is low on confidence then that’s exactly what they’ll be saying as well. We know they’ll come with some huge physicality, just look at their team – Manu, he’s a hell of a weapon, he’s one of the most destructive players in the world. This league is the toughest league out there, it’s tough to get wins and we’ll be trying our best to make it us who are victorious.”
Outings at Twickenham are becoming increasingly rare for Care. He last appeared there in this fixture 12 months ago, not long after his last Test appearance against Japan. England ended up winning 35-15, but having trailed 15-10 at halftime it was a match that effectively proved the end for a number of World Cup hopefuls. Care is 32 now and the hunger to represent England remains but he is wise enough to know that with the Six Nations marking the start of the next World Cup cycle, his international days may be over.
“To be honest I’m not thinking about it,” he added. “All I’m doing is enjoying my rugby at Quins. All I’m doing is leaving that to the people who choose. All I’m trying to do is play well for my club and to win as many games as we can. Try to perform well and help the team, and obviously that desire to wear an England shirt is still there for me and is still strong. But, it’s kind of in my hands to play as well as I can, to force the selection. But obviously the coaches have to see where they want to go with the team and I do feel I can add a lot to that shirt. And the desire to wear the England shirt is still as strong as it has been.”