By Neale Harvey
Kiwi centre Francis Saili claims Harlequins were not fit enough to compete last season but is backing ‘workaholic’ rugby director Paul Gustard to whip them into shape.
A disastrous campaign in which Quins finished tenth was pockmarked by injuries and poor performance, leading to the dismissal of head man John Kingston.
Saili, who managed just five appearances in his first season at the club due to three separate injuries, says Gustard’s arrival has already brought a harder edge.
“We weren’t fit enough last season and that’s been a major focus in pre-season,” Saili told The Rugby Paper.
“There’s two types of fitness – contact fitness and running fitness to play the style of game we want to play that suits the Harlequins brand – but we fell short on both counts
“At one stage last season we had 25 players injured, so we’re trying to make sure everyone’s properly fit going into the new season now because with the vision Paul Gustard has for us, we need to train really hard.
“Everyone knows Harlequins like to throw the ball around and with the effect Paul is having on us already and the game plan we’re working towards, it’s going to be really exciting.”
Saili reveals how former England defence coach Gustard is leading by example, adding: “I turned up at 6.30 one morning after he’d just joined us and he was already in the gym!
“He trains at 6am himself so that was a bit of a shock, but he’s having a massive influence on our fitness already and it’s hard not to be impressed by that. He wants us to play a high tempo style of footy and that’s something we’re all determined to buy into.”
Former All Black Saili endured a nightmare first season at the Stoop following his move from Munster, with a sickening head knock against Exeter in October the worst of his three lay-offs.
“It was a hell of a bang and I was out for three months after that,” Saili, 27, said.
“I had a neck injury at the start of the season which restricted my shoulder use and left me with no strength in my left arm, then came the concussion, and after I came back from that I suffered an injury to my right shoulder that finished my season. It was so bloody annoying.
“I managed five games and 98 minutes, which is a hugely disappointing statistic, but it hasn’t dampened my enthusiasm at all and I’m just buzzing for the new season now.
“When you’re injured and feel you should be offering more, it drives you to come back stronger and there’s a lot of pent-up frustration waiting to be unleashed.”
With Saili looking to make an impact, the arrival of fellow centre Ben Tapuai from Bath and England wing prospect Nathan Earle from Saracens offer other intriguing backline options.
Saili added: “We’ve signed two good players in Nathan and Ben and we’ve got a bloody good team on our roster. We want to right the wrongs of last season but also prove to ourselves that we can play, so the arrival of guys of this quality can only help us to be more competitive again.
“John Kingston had a vision to put a team in place that could challenge for another championship title and with Paul Gustard coming in now, that ambition has not changed.”
By Neale Harvey