New Harlequins captain James Horwill outlines his expectations for the Twickenham Stoop outfit and explains to NEALE HARVEY why the British & Irish Lions must survive.
You’re no stranger to captaincy having previously led Australia and Queensland Reds, but how does it feel to be appointed skipper of Harlequins?
It’s actually quite humbling to come to a new club and be considered to captain the side after only two seasons. It’s something I certainly don’t take lightly and I feel honoured that the organisation, coaching staff and players see me in that light. I’m excited about the opportunities ahead.
Can you summarise your first two seasons at Quins?
I was open-minded when I came here and had no preconceptions, but I must admit I’ve loved being in England. Off the field, my wife and I have enjoyed living in London and from a rugby point of view Harlequins have been fantastic. All the players and supporters welcomed me from day one, and when you decide to move your whole life to the other side of the world it’s nice to have that reassurance and support. We’d like to have won more games and be pushing higher up the table but we managed to reach a European cup final in my first year and qualified for the Champions Cup in my second. That was the minimum we wanted, now we want to be pushing for silverware.
How will you approach the captaincy?
The thing you need to make sure of is that everyone is on the same page and you do your bit to help that. It’s about the group functioning as well as they can as a unit. You have bigger squads in England and the size of the group you interact with every day, not only players but support staff, keeps growing as well, so it’s certainly going to be a challenge to have everyone pointing in the same direction. That’s the most important thing. After that it’s about making sure you do the right things yourself and don’t let your own standards slip. I’ll keep working on that so my performances are where they should be week-in, week-out.
Did last season feel like a success or failure?
We were desperate to be playing big games in the Champions Cup and testing ourselves against the best sides in Europe so it was a big positive that we qualified. We’re not at all happy with where we finished in the league, though. While we were satisfied to make the Champions Cup, I wouldn’t say we were pleased with how the season panned out.
Last summer saw a big upheaval in the coaching team whereas this time the only change is Nick Evans stepping up as a backs coach. Will that help?
It certainly enables us to build on where we were last season. We made an active push post-2015/16 to evolve our game and do things better. The club had achieved some success under Conor O’Shea and he was a really good coach, but new coaches want to put their own stamp on things and in a packed Premiership season you don’t have a lot of time to implement things. That makes things more difficult but John Kingston, Mark Mapletoft, Graham Rowntree and Nick Easter have had a year together under their belts and we hope that will lead to a more consistent start to the new season. Nick Evans should also provide a positive coaching input.
What kind of a team do you want Harlequins to be?
We want to be a team that plays rugby, moves the ball and entertains, but we also need to be adaptable to different situations. When it’s cold, wet and windy you need a different way to play and we need to be a team that has a really good work ethic. No matter where we are on the field or what’s showing on the scoreboard, we want to be a team that’s united and enjoys what it does. We want guys playing with a smile on their faces because the teams that tend to do that are generally the ones who get more results going their way.
Just two Premiership away wins last season tells a story. Surely that must change?
Our away record has to be a lot better. You’ve got to win your home games as that’s the basis for a good season, but we also have to put a big focus on winning away because that’s how the best teams get to the top of the table. Teams like Exeter win wherever they are and whether it’s at Sale on a Friday night or Leicester, we’ve got to learn how to get the job done.
Excited by the squad you’re putting together, with Francis Saili and Demetri Catrakilis looking like decent signings?
With Nick Evans retiring we needed another No.10 and it’s exciting to have a guy like Demetri coming across who’s not only played a lot of Super Rugby in South Africa but has been in France’s Top 14 for the last couple of years. He’s got that European experience now and hopefully he’ll bring that to us. We’ve got a lot of great young backs coming through and Francis Saili will add to our strength there. I came across him playing for Queensland against the Auckland Blues and he’s represented the All Blacks and played well for another big club in Munster, so I’d expect something special from him. He knows European rugby now and will make an impact, I’m sure.
On a disappointing note, you must have been concerned at seeing your Kiwi lock Mark Reddish having to quit through concussion?
Concussion is one of those things where there’s been a lot more focus than there was previously and you’re glad these things are getting picked up. It’s great that players now understand that this is a serious issue that needs to be treated as such, but on the other hand it’s sad that a guy like Mark doesn’t get to finish on his own terms. Unfortunately, Mark’s had to make a decision that’s right for him and we wish him and his family well.
Does the risk of concussion worry you?
We understand the risks that we take when we play the game. You have to have your head in the sand if you don’t realise that because the publicity it gets now – good and bad – and the information that’s available ensures everyone knows what’s happening. But as long as player welfare is put at the forefront of everything, that’s the most important thing.
We hear a lot about player welfare, but then in the next breath people are talking about ten or 11-month seasons. It doesn’t add up, surely?
Player welfare has to be No.1. We are the product that is out there and whilst I understand there are lots of driving factors behind season structure and people want to see more games to generate TV rights, sponsorship and money, if we extend the season to play more rugby you’re just not going to have enough top players left to play. The lifespan of a rugby player is short enough as it is but the impacts are getting bigger, contacts are getting harder and everything’s moving faster. Players are getting bigger as well so the welfare issue has to be at the forefront of any conversations about changes of season. Fortunately, the RPA here have been very strong on that and they’ve been excellent in keeping us in the loop.
There’s been a lot of talk about the future of the British & Irish Lions. As someone who captained Australia against the Lions four years ago, what did that occasion mean to you and how important is it for them to survive?
As an Australian, it’s almost a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I think only George Smith has played against the Lions in two tours so it’s huge for any player, whether you’re from Australia, New Zealand or South Africa, and it’s one of those things that’s linked back to the traditions of rugby. To have played in the series four years ago was a fantastic honour. I hear what the clubs say and the calendar is jam-packed now, but the Lions should definitely have a place in it. The hard thing in New Zealand is how little time they had to prepare.
The Lions’ future will probably boil down to money but what’s been your impression of the tour as an overseas player in England?
Money is dominating a lot of things but the Lions are special. I live in Putney and at 8am each Saturday I’ve been seeing loads of people walking down the streets in Lions shirts. The pubs are packed, which wouldn’t happen normally, so it’s obviously very important to supporters. As for our players at Harlequins, it meant everything to them. Some were bitterly disappointed to miss out while others were elated to be going to New Zealand because it’s the top honour for any British or Irish player. It means you’re the best of the best and while the schedule gets tighter and tighter, hopefully there’ll be a way of working things out.
Australian rugby is in the doldrums. How concerned are you about events in your homeland?
The negative stigma around Australian rugby is hurting it badly and one of the biggest problems is the ARU announcing they were culling one of the Super Rugby teams but haven’t known how to do it. Therefore, you have a bunch of players who moved their lives to Perth or Melbourne but don’t know if they’ve got jobs next year – and that’s dragged on for six months! You’d have to have your head in the sand to think that hasn’t had an effect and everything about rugby there at the moment seems to have a negative connotation. Crowds are suffering as a result and in a market place where NRL and AFL are the dominant sports and soccer is becoming increasingly popular, there’s very little by way of positivity around rugby union.
What’s the answer?
Hopefully, a decision over the future of the provinces will be made because the sooner that is put to bed everyone can move on. The Super Rugby structure certainly hasn’t helped Australia rugby, especially with union being the No.1 sport in New Zealand and South Africa, because all it’s done is leave supporters confused and disenfranchised. If those things can be sorted out and we get back to developing the grassroots, we might have a chance.
Player-drain now looks to be another threat to Aussie rugby, with 27-year-olds like Rob Horne, Luke Morahan and James O’Connor jumping ship for Northampton, Bristol, and Sale?
It’s always been a threat with older guys leaving – I’m 32 – but now you’re seeing more guys in the 24-28 age group giving up the opportunity to play for their provinces or the Wallabies. That’s a trend that will really hurt Australian rugby because whilst it may not affect the top Test guys too much, it will hurt the provinces and reduce our strength-in-depth. Australian sides just cannot compete financially with clubs in England, France or Japan. It’s a major worry.
On the flipside, how impressed have you been with the job your compatriot Eddie Jones has done with England?
The results speak for themselves. He’s got a group of guys who want to play for him and as a foreigner coming in, that’s not an easy thing to achieve. He’s only lost one Test in 20-odd and they keep improving. Everybody said they couldn’t win in Argentina because they were missing a bunch of Lions, but they beat a full-strength Pumas side 2-0 in their own backyard. Eddie’s got that eye on the World Cup and their goal is to peak there, but they’re peaking pretty well at the moment!
Do they have a chance of dethroning the All Blacks?
New Zealand are still setting the standards but from talking to our England guys at Harlequins, they’re very clear about what Eddie expects. He just wants people to do things to the very best of their ability and you can see that in the way they play. If people do their jobs it allows playmakers like George Ford and Owen Farrell to dictate games really well and they’ve got some really good attacking threats. England’s forward pack is setting a really good platform and when you’ve got good players playing consistently well it certainly helps the cause. There’s no reason to believe England can’t do it in 2019 so it will be interesting to see what happens when they next play the All Blacks.
Finally, you lifted the Super Rugby trophy as captain of Queensland Reds in 2011, what would it mean to repeat that in the Premiership with Quins?
That’s the plan! We wouldn’t be here if we thought we couldn’t do it. If you’re playing professional sport you want to win anything you can get your hands on and that sense of standing up there holding a trophy still drives me. When you see pictures of Exeter and Saracens doing it, that’s where you want to be. That’s why you put the hard graft in and there’s not much of a better feeling in life than the satisfaction of having a group of people fighting over a long period to get to that point. It would mean a lot to do it again and, at Harlequins, anything is possible.