Harlequins copying Springboks with new physical gameplan

Harlequins - Harlequins copying Springboks with new physical gameplan

It does not feel entirely natural to compare Harlequins and the Springboks from a stylistic standpoint. Though the former value solid scrummaging, and have done for a while, dashing attack is their trademark. South Africa, meanwhile, are synonymous with smothering defence.

This season, however, Jerry Flannery wanted to tap into the mind-set that an old Munster colleague, Jacques Nienaber, engrained into the back-to-back world champions.

“Jacques is the best coach I’ve ever come across,” Flannery explains. “I’d be a pale imitation of what he is trying to do, but there are certainly elements we’ve tried to incorporate. When I worked with Jacques at Munster, I saw the buy-in from players when you said: ‘Let’s go after these lads, let’s not just contain them until they make a mistake’. That’s really where we’re going with it.”

Aggression and tenacity have been prioritised over immaculate structure in a bid to force turnovers more regularly and feed one of Harlequins’ traditional strengths.

“The DNA of the club is based on attack and our aim is to get the ball back,” Flannery adds. “It’s difficult to do that when you’re passive in defence. That can be effective for some teams if you’re focusing on connection [in a defensive line].

“To get players to really buy in, I think they work best when they’re using defence as a form of attack, especially when you look at how good we are on transitions.”

The bottom line is that Harlequins are conceding fewer points this season, an average of 22.7 in Premiership and Champions Cup fixtures so far, compared to 27.6 across the 2022-23 campaign. There have been a couple of hiccups, notably a 47-19 thumping by Toulouse in December and another heavy home loss to Saracens the previous month. Generally, though, Flannery is pleased with how a shift in attitude suits the squad.

Will Evans is the Premiership’s most devastating breakdown disruptor, leading the competition for jackal turnovers per 80 minutes again this season. Harlequins select athletic, powerful players at outside centre and wing to replicate the way South Africa blitz up and shut down space.

Will Joseph will wear 13 against Leicester Tigers on Friday evening, with Louis Lynagh and Nick David out wide. André Esterhuizen is particularly handy for his insight into this type of system.

Will Evans (L) - Harlequins copying Springboks with new physical gameplan
Will Evans (left) has been a standout performer for Harlequins this season - PA/Adam Davy

“If you look at the way the Springboks defend, a lot of their outside backs are guys who can come in hard but, all of a sudden, pull out to width on the next phase,” Flannery says. “If you have guys who are a little bit trudgy, it’s harder to do that.

“We’ve got guys who can make defensive reads and the big focus we’ve had is on trying to ensure that players aren’t guessing. It’s not jumping out of the line because you think the ball is going to go somewhere. You’re still reading, which is a skill you can develop. André has been excellent. He’s given guys the confidence to go with him.”

Hold off Leicester and Harlequins will return to the top of the Premiership, at least until Northampton Saints host Newcastle Falcons on Saturday afternoon. Their 36-3 thrashing of Sale Sharks on Dec 1, underpinned by dogged tackling, sweeping tries and the cunning of Evans, was a flagship performance. Heavy wins over Cardiff and Ulster, booking a spot in the last 16 of the Champions Cup, have given Harlequins impetus.

Flannery credits Danny Wilson, the head coach who arrived from Tigers this summer, with “aligning our whole game model”. Harlequins are conceding fewer penalties this season – 8.1 per match compared to 10.4 last term in the Premiership, according to Stats Perform – and have put boot to ball more, increasing their kicking metres from 707 per match to 919. “When your attack is failing further up the field, that makes it a lot easier for your defence,” Flannery says.

‌Felix Jones, another protégé of Nienaber, will aim to invigorate England’s defence for this Six Nations. Harlequins are demonstrating the advantage of embracing confrontation.

“The thing for us is getting the ball back,” Flannery reiterates. “We’re averaging eight turnovers each game, which is top of the league. That’s a double-edged sword and a balancing act because sometimes going after the ball that hard can leave you exposed. But we’re trying to get it right and it’s going reasonably well at the moment.”

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