Thursday, 24 January 2008

Quins Capital Challenge performance deconstructed

The comfort with which Harlequins RL despatched neighbour London Skolars in Tuesday’s pre-season friendly at the Royal Artillery Gardens has raised the question of how prepared the side will be when the season proper kicks off against Wigan Warriors on February 9th.

Although the Quins will face a potentially tougher challenge against Celtic Crusaders, last season’s National League Two champions, in their final friendly on Saturday, many other top flight teams including Wigan will have match hardened themselves against fellow Super League outfits. The argument in favour of pre-season friendly games are that they allow coaches to test out player configurations in an environment similar, but not entirely the same, to fully competitive games, whilst players get to work on their match fitness after the winter layoff. The argument against are that valuable players are put at risk of injury for games that mean nothing in the scheme of things, as Bradford Bulls recently demonstrated. It is also true that injury risk can never be eliminated, it being common for them to occur in training, so a friendly game played with a lighter intensity than a full tie may be a rational compromise.

But what did Tuesday’s game tell us? The coaches will no doubt have been looking at the shape of the play, the movement of the sides both on and off the ball, the way different players linked up in particular combinations, and in particular the way new signings slotted in with those retained from last year. Brian McDermott has already gone on record as being pleased with retaining the core of last year’s squad, a move that will hopefully produce some positive consistency in performance (and may also have influenced the decision not to play pre-season games against Super League opposition), but there have been some important changes to the squad in the close season.

The key axis of Mark McLinden at fullback, Danny Orr at scrumhalf and Scott Hill at standoff functioned well, with a perceptible dip in the sharpness of the decision making when the trio were off the field. Hill in particular looked rejuvenated, suggesting that he has put behind him the injury and illness problems that marred his first season with the club and is now ready to fully inject his undoubted class into the side.

In the troublesome centre slot David Howell made an assured debut, with Matt Gafa now looking likely to fill the other centre position come the start of the season. However, youngster Tony Clubb reminded everyone of why he is knocking on the door of the first choice side with some powerful running. On the wings it looks likely that Rikki Sheriffe and Jon Wells will remain as first choices, but Will Sharp and Lamont Bryan (who interchanged with McLinden at fullback) are likely to keep them on their toes.

In the forwards Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook shifted from prop to second row, a not entirely unforeseen move give McDermott’s previous statements about better utilising the young forwards devastating burst of speed. New signing Danny Ward slogged away at prop, in a low key but solid performance. Joe Walsh also showed he is fully recovered from his injury problems with some barnstorming runs, and it looks only a matter of time before he forces his way into the reckoning.

With captain Rob Purdham and fellow regulars Karl Temata and Daniel Heckenberg missing, and new signing Gareth Haggerty still returning from injury it’s difficult to judge how the pack will line-up come the start of the season. However, a reasonable guess is that with all props fully fit Heckenberg will start alongside either Ward or Temata, with the one who misses out joining Haggerty on the bench. McCarthy-Scarsbrook is likely to start in the second-row, with Henry Paul and Rob Purdham completing the back three of the srum. No changes are anticipated at hooker, Chad Randall provides crisp distribution and reliable defence, whilst Julien Rinaldi offers extra attacking options coming off the interchange bench. The likes of Grayshon, Walsh, Joe Mbu and new boy Dwayne Barker are all likely to feature from the bench at some point.

Quins RL CEO Paul Brown has confirmed that the club is no longer in talks with the former Newcastle Knights utility Daniel Abraham. Although the number 12 jersey had been left open for Abraham he was unable to secure a work permit, having lost his first grade slot due to injury he was subsequently played in the reserve grade side on his return to fitness, scuppering any chance that he would meet the percentage of first grade games played needed.

The one key question yet to be answered is where Chris Melling is likely to feature on his return from a groin injury. Melling was one of the standout performers last season, shining at fullback in the absence of Mark McLinden, however he’s unlikely to displace McLinden and looked unconvincing when shifted to the centres. However such selection headaches are the kind McDermott would prefer to have, rather than selections forced by injury as was the case for sections of last term.

From the London Skolars point of view the game will have been a positive experience, despite failing to score the side did produce some good attacking rugby and remained competitive for the full eighty minutes despite the class gulf between themselves and their fulltime opponents. In particular Skolars looked strong down the right hand flank, whilst the technical execution of a number of set piece plays, including one particular scrum play which should have resulted in a try for Dene Miller, were very sharp. Given that the men from North London were unable to field as strong a squad as they would have liked they showed that they now have a strength and depth that was missing a couple of seasons ago. They will start this season’s National Rail Cup competition against Doncaster next week with a genuine hope that they can make an impact.

* Photo reproduced by kind permission of Steph Kaye

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