Harlequins boss Paul Gustard believes his new-look team are already showing the unity that should carry the club to greater heights after a few seasons of stagnation.
Quins are up and running in the Gallagher Premiership as they won their first Stoop fixture of a delayed season, because of the World Cup, beating Bristol 22-17.
Saturday’s win was far from enthralling. “A really ugly game” was how Quins’ head of rugby described it, as teaming rain and wind led to spillages, turnovers and missed tackles galore.
But he feels the signs are already there that the summer recruits are going to make his team that little bit more competitive this season and that they can lay a glove on last season’s stand-out teams, Saracens and Exeter.
“We recruited a certain amount of players [in the summer] and we changed the line-up, which has been a source of frustration at this club for a period of time,” Gustard said.
“We changed the spine, we changed four of the locks and brought in an international hooker with 34 caps [Scott Baldwin of Wales].
“We’ve had a great pre-season and been together for 11-14 weeks and that time we’ve built some bonds and some unity.
“I don’t care if they’ve played five games together or 20 games, if they are good enough to play for the club, that’s what I’m looking for. I’ve got a good group of men and that’s the most important thing.
“These new guys have brought something into the group and there’s a great energy around us. I’ve seen an exponential growth in terms of our cohesiveness the last 15 months and I’m seeing more in terms of the character and resilience of the squad.”
Gustard added: “The margins are so small. There’s no team that are pulling away from the others I think and we’ve probably closed the gap as a league on the top two teams [Saracens and Exeter]. On any given day, any team can win and we’ve got to come out on the right side of that more often.
“We finished fifth last year for a reason. We’re competitive. We’ve had two tough encounters and got five points from a possible 10. It’s not ideal, but it’s not bad.”
Quins were lucky to go in 9-9 at the break against the Bristol Bears, after a lacklustre opening period, but with conditions in their favour in the second half, they raised the tempo and Marcus Smith added the fourth of his five penalties for the game to get the hosts in front for the first time.
After Bears fly-half Callum Sheedy had landed his fourth pot at goal to make it 15-12, a moment of class from one of those summer signing, Argentinian scrum-half Martin Landajo, proved decisive. It was his vision and grubber kick into space which allowed Joe Marchant to dot down.
Bristol did rally to go over in the corner through replacement Jake Heenan, but Quins repelled a late surge on their own 22 to claim the victory.
“It was a game of small margins,” Gustard said. “We just about came out on top and I was really pleased with our defence. I thought out set pieces improved as the game went on and I was pretty pleased with the game management second half.
“It was an unbelievably close game. If we’d come out the wrong side of it, we wouldn’t grumble too much.
“It was a great try. That’s what you get with an 88-cap Argentinian. They can open the door from nothing and Joe Marchant’s scored a few of those in his career.
“I was particularly pleased with the back row today. I thought all four of them played really well. I thought Tom Lawday was outstanding. Rob Robshaw and Will Evans were men of the match. They got three or four turnovers and tackled really well.”
Of course Quins will soon be strengthened by the return of injured ex-England pair Mike Brown – who now has a bar named after him at the ground – and Danny Care.
They will also welcome with open arms two of the heroes of England’s epic World Cup semi-final win against New Zealand. Both Kyle Sinckler and Joe Marler have a chance to return to the fold as World cup winners after next Saturday’s final in Yokohama.