If there’s always one team that specializes in creating their own luck, it’s the Harlequins. The question is whether the Houdinis of the English rugby club can once again conjure up enough to secure another moving chapter in their checkered modern history. Because if Saracens lead 28-0 in the first half of Saturday’s Gallagher Premiership semi-final, as Bristol did at the same stage last year, a magical comeback simply won’t happen.
It also doesn’t take a genius to sense how motivated Saracens are to re-enter the winner’s circle after three years of tumult. Which forces the defending champions to react accordingly: all the usual crowd-pleasing tricks and sleight of hand, but allied with the constant control and spiky physicality that the best teams display. In other words, a litmus test of the courage of champions is coming to the hill.
Which makes it all the more interesting to listen to Quins players this week and not detect a shred of fear or apprehension. Talk, for example, to the club’s recently crowned Player of the Season, Cadan Murley, and the inner confidence in the Quins dressing room is almost tangible. “We think we can go back and that’s the most exciting thing,” insists the 22-year-old, almost bluntly. “That belief is still there.”
The power of positive thinking clearly powers just about everything Quins do. Murley shares a home in Guildford with England fly-half Marcus Smith and tells a telling story of his friend’s behavior ahead of last year’s final against Exeter. “I remember we were leaving the house for the final and Marcus was like, ‘Today is going to be a good day. I can feel it.’ Then he went out and won it. On game day you can just see that sparkle in his eye. He just has this belief that he can go out there and pull the strings and lead us to a win. I see him a lot and he definitely has the same conviction as last year.
Of course, it won’t be easy against steely Owen Farrell, with whom Smith is likely to start in midfield on England’s summer tour of Australia. But Quins, from their perspective, feels they may only have a few small but important advantages over their fierce London rivals. For starters, they’re the only team remaining in the playoffs to have made the last four a year ago. A warm, sunny day would also suit the type of fast and furious contest they prefer.
Anyone who witnessed the European trial of the season in Quins’ home round of 16 tie against Montpellier in April knows what they can do when the muse is with them. Call it telepathy or just collective intuition, but Murley instinctively knew what to do as Danny Care acrobatically kept the ball on the field near the touchline inside his own 22.
“As soon as Danny took hold of that ball and put it in Marcus’ hands, I thought, ‘I need to be alive here.’ They had their attackers spread out on the pitch and there was no solid chase line as they expected the lineout Marcus licks that I was ready and managed to shoot the end of his passes to keep Joe Marchant away, who is now receiving all the accolades for it.
The young winger’s supporting play, focused run and cleverly executed final pass did not go unnoticed in high places, however. Even before being named to this season’s BT Sport Dream Team this week, Murley has hit Eddie Jones’ radar and could yet emerge as a possible bolter for the next Aussie adventure. “I had a positive conversation with Eddie,” he reveals. “I don’t really know what’s going to happen yet. He just told me to keep working hard. We obviously have to focus on the playoffs, but personally I would love to be in and around the England squad.
The son of an army officer, Murley has come a long way in a relatively short period since his days at Salisbury RFC and Bishop Wordsworth’s School. His father, Jon, is from Cornwall and was at school with Jack Nowell’s parents in Penzance. Murley happens to be a similar type of player to Nowell: strong in contact, eager for action and a great team player. “When I was younger he was the type of winger that I looked up to. We’re quite similar. The way he goes in and around the ruck and not just carries his wing… he’s definitely someone. one to whom I aspire.
Continue his fine form at the end of the season – he has scored eight tries in his last six league appearances – and Murley’s stock will continue to rise. It will also further underscore the attacking quality the Quins now have at their disposal. Everyone is talking about Care, Smith and their South African arrowhead André Esterhuizen but increasingly rare these days is the high profile match in which Murley, Marchant, Tyrone Green – wearing 14 for this match – or Huw Jones don’t do anything spectacular.
While some credit must go to the insightful coaching of, among others, Tabai Matson and Nick Evans, Murley believes the longstanding relationship he has had with Smith and other academy graduates also helps. Along with Smith’s home cooking – “The night before a game when we get the carbs he makes a nice little fried rice which is amazing” – there is a proactive connection on the pitch. “We all love playing and training together. We’ve been doing it since we were 16… that closeness is what gets us into a lot of games when we’re 20 points behind. It really brings us together.”
So, can Quins do it again? Given a fastball and a bit of space, Murley sincerely means it. “Last year there was almost an element of surprise. But we were like, ‘We can shock everybody, we know we can do it, we’ve seen how we train and play. “It’s the same again this year. We need the whole team to believe in it and be on the same page. We’ve had big wins in the past in big games, so hopefully we can do it again.