Exiles tie can spark our season -- O'Shea
Harlequins director of rugby, Conor O'Shea, declared last night that his club is embarking on a make-or-break part of the season, beginning with the Twickenham Big Game Premiership match against London Irish on Monday.
That the club is in good order to meet the challenge of three crucial matches against the Exiles, Northampton and Wasps was signalled last week by the contract extension signed by 20-year-old prop, Joe Marler, one of the most exciting young talents in the English game. Marler has committed to the club until 2014.
"Joe's signing is a great statement about the club," said O'Shea. " That's brilliant for us as we continue to build our identity as an English-based club with a local feel to it.
"We want the club to be connected with its roots, linked to its heartland. Joe has grown up with the club. We regularly have the highest ratio of English-qualified players in the Premiership and that's important to us. We're not out to buy a team, we're out to build one."
Marler will be in the squad to face London Irish in front of an expected 70,000 crowd for the festive occasion. The goodwill shown by O'Shea to his former club extends no further than renewing acquaintances from his time there as player, coach and chief executive.
The former Ireland full-back knows only too well that Harlequins have to start winning league matches, especially home fixtures, if they are not to slip out of contention for next season's Heineken Cup.
They currently lie eighth with only three wins in the league from 10 matches.
"These games are massive for us," acknowledged O'Shea. " We can't afford to fall behind the eight-ball in qualifying for Europe. We know that.
"Our current standing in the league is not good enough, even though there are two draws in that record, too, and only seven points separate third from where we are.
"We want to challenge for the top four and that's where this club has to be. This is a really important period for us. Our performances, except for the recent game against Saracens, have been encouraging.
"We haven't got the points from them that we really deserved but that's a reality we've simply got to address and that starts against London Irish. It's a hugely significant challenge."
Harlequins are going well in two other competitions, the Anglo-Welsh LV=Cup and the Amlin Challenge Cup, topping their pool in the LV= and going neck-and-neck with Bayonne in the European tournament.
The English Premiership, though, is the yardstick against which a club is measured.
Off the field Harlequins have prospered, with the Stoop close to its 14,282 capacity most weeks, indicative of a well-run business.
On the field, the effects of the 2008 Bloodgate scandal lingered and caused the club to hit the buffers after reaching second position in the league that season.
This apart, two sixth-place finishes is the best 'Quins have managed in the league in a decade. It's not a great return and it's time one of the sport's most famous names created some history in the modern era. Two wins in the next fortnight is surely a minimum requirement.
"London Irish is a bigger game for us than it is for them," said O'Shea, mindful that, although the Exiles have lost seven games in all competitions a row they still lie fourth.
"We need this. We need to nail a massive performance. Both sides want to play with ball-in-hand, so it will be a spectacle worthy of the occasion. We're positive about what lies in front of us."
The Big Game by name and by nature this year. (© Daily Telegraph, London)