After a dismal season, Harlequins finally dismissed Director of Rugby John Kingston on Monday, although he will stay until the end of the season.
It is the third time Kingston has been dismissed as Director of Rugby at the Twickenham-based club, after being replaced by Mark Evans and Conor O’Shea in 2002 and 2010.
For the vast majority of Quins fans, whilst there was disappointment at the way it ended, there was little doubt that Kingston was in desperate need of replacing.
However, to say that Quins’ problems will vanish with the departure of the man in charge is ludicrous.
A few weeks ago, I wrote an article that analysed some of the sackings over the past 12 months and whether they were the correct decisions in the circumstances.
Whilst I ultimately concluded that more had been right than wrong, I was in little doubt that in all the cases I assessed, there were others that had to shoulder the blame, and the sacking was never going to alleviate the problems immediately.
There is no better example than Harlequins.
A Culture Of Mediocrity
There’s a sporting cliche that a team that allows its players the chance to develop, gives its managers and coaches time to implement their plans, respects the opposition, doesn’t have a knee-jerk reaction to defeats and has a positive set of supporters is “soft”.
It’s a criticism dished out regularly to the likes of Arsenal in the Premier League and in rugby, that tag is often handed to Harlequins.
In rugby particularly, “softness” is a killer to teams with any real ambition. But that’s where the commonly accepted idea of softness falls down.
If you look at the definition or characteristics I provided, that tag could be handed to many a team, yet where Quins are separate from other sides is that they allow themselves to overdo all of the above.
Many players have been given far too long, as was Kingston himself, to prove themselves. A culture of mediocrity has begun to take over the club, and a “this is OK” culture has damaged Quins in recent times.
This is epitomised by their away form. They have only picked up four away wins in their last 28 games on the road. Believing that to be acceptable, or anyway near it means that finishing in the top half is reliant on a near perfect home record.
Indeed, with their home fans getting behind them, Quins have been much more successful, but as fans have become increasingly irritated in recent weeks, and their home atmospheres have gone from supportive to frustrated, to toxic, their home form has taken a dive, exposing just how badly they play when they don’t have vocal support.
Serious, and dare I say, “hard” teams, can play regardless of atmosphere, pressure, or situation.
The Other Coaches
Following his retirement from playing in 2016, Nick Easter was handed defensive duties. Quins’ defence is on course to post it’s worst ever season this year, that’s despite the fact that Easter became Quins’ first ever full-time defence coach (others had held the role, but combined it with other duties). That would suggest that Quins are employing someone to make their defence worse.
Whilst that is a major over-simplification, Easter, and Nick Evans (attack) have both been handed vital coaching roles with absolutely zero experience of what they’re meant to be doing.
It comes back to the soft, over-respectful culture that has already been mentioned, that allows former players to seemingly walk into coaching positions.
That can work, but when there is clear evidence that both are failing in what they are doing, they should be dismissed or at least, given a chance to try their hand lower down the Leagues, like Tom Williams, who combines his Academy role at Quins with the First Team duties at Esher Rugby in National League One.
Graham Rowntree has marginally improved the forwards, and Adam Jones seems to have had a positive effect of Kyle Sinckler, when the latter has been asked in interviews, but they don’t have the personnel to work with, as will be discussed shortly.
But ultimately the biggest problem amongst the other coaches is former backs coach, now head coach, Mark Mapletoft.
Mapletoft is without doubt a good backs coach, Quins are not afraid to try adventurous moves, kicks or passes, so often seen by Mapletoft in his playing days. However handing the responsibility of coaching an entire Premiership squad clearly hasn’t worked. Quins are making the same mistakes week after week, and actually don’t seem to have an identity or style of play.
Kingston has to be given credit for the way he has improved Harlequins’ squad. He has given Mark Mapletoft and Nick Evans a superb backline to work with and has increased the depth of the squad.
But there are still glaring weaknesses. In the second row and scrum-half positions for example, where Quins are having serious trouble to replace veterans (James Horwill and Danny Care) who are on the way out.
This was the case in the fly-half role. Before Marcus Smith was discovered, Quins went through a string of second-rate second choice fly-halves who were supposed to replace Evans.
And whilst it is a criticism that is regularly brought out and overused to describe Quins, looking at all of their international players, the quality below them in those specific positions just isn’t high enough.
Nevertheless, it is not a side that should still be in with a chance of being relegated with three rounds remaining.
Harlequins’ new All Blacks partnership and the fact they are likely to replace Kingston with a more suitable Director of Rugby gives the club reason to be positive. They do not have a bad squad too, and whilst it may seem a long time ago for the fans, they were Premiership Champions only six years ago with the same CEO, so it’s a club that knows how to win.
But they need to change.
Rather than focusing on brand, new stadia and commercial opportunities, the rugby needs to take priority at the Stoop, and when there is positive momentum back on the pitch, that will naturally feed into what goes on off the pitch.
Regarding the coaching, they need to go back to basics. Reduce the number of coaches, and make sure those who coach the team are much more experienced, and allow the Director of Rugby a more hands-on role, which hasn’t been the case for five years.
And whilst it is a strong squad, deadwood and players who simply aren’t good enough have to be cleared out, and there needs to be better balance throughout.
It was a great shame to have to dismiss such a long-serving coach, but if Quins fail to use this as a catalyst for greater change, they will be in the Championship in the coming seasons. It’s as simple as that.