Amid the hype and dwarf-throwing of the World Cup, the early stages of the Guinness Premiership have perhaps been overlooked. While the gaze of rugby fans – bleary as it may be, given the early starts required to watch the matches – has been fixed firmly on the southern hemsiphere, London-based Harlequins have shot out of the blocks, taking advantage of the fact that other sides are missing their England internationals. And, equally, they’ve benefited from the fact that Nick Evans, the New Zealand flyhalf who would likely have replaced the injured Dan Carter, remains well and truly on English soil.
Evans joined Harlequins after the 2007 World Cup, his decision to play overseas making him ineligible for All Blacks duties, leaving him stalled on 15 caps. It is a jarringly low tally for a player who was, at one point, the second-best flyhalf in the world. Unfortunately for Evans, Carter, the top dog, was never going to be dislodged. Although Evans, like any self-respecting Kiwi, has had one eye on the 2011 World Cup, his primary focus has been on the rugby fields of England where he’s produced some outstanding performances for Quins.
“The World Cup doesn’t come around too often but our season doesn’t stop,” Evans says. “You notice it a little bit with the size of the crowds, although we’ve still been getting some amazing support. So we’ve not be affected by it – we’ve prepared really well and come through pre-season ready to play.”
Harlequins boast an overwhelmingly homegrown squad; Evans and a couple of other Kiwis, along with a pair of Samoans and a pair of Argentines make up the overseas contingent but the rest are English. Given the travails of the England side in New Zealand, Evans has enjoyed needling his teammates.
“I’ve been giving a bit of banter to them – I’ve been waiting for them to slip up,” Evans says. “There’s always a bit of humour about it, as there should be – it’s all good fun. It’s a shame that the off-field stuff dominated the headlines.”
Of course, the headline story in New Zealand in recent weeks has been the tournament-ending injury sustained by Carter and the attendant wave of grief and frustration felt by the country’s rugby fanatics. If Evans was eligible for national duties, the injury to Carter would have opened a long-awaited window. With Carter sidelined, it would have fallen to Evans to pull the strings, make the plays, kick the do-or-die conversions. It would have been his time to shine. Some second-guessing of his decision to forego an All Blacks career, and a World Cup on home soil, would be natural, but Evans remains phlegmatic. Tellingly, he seems more concerned with the damage done to the All Blacks’ campaign – given he now sees himself as a fan, like any other – than with any recriminations about a missed opportunity.
“You can look at it that way, I suppose,” Evans says breezily. “But I always knew it was always a possibility, that he could get injured. But I love it here and I’ve really enjoyed just being an All Blacks fan, getting up early and watching the games.
“The injury to Dan was obviously a setback for the All Blacks – Carter is a once-in-a-generation player and you lose his control, his coolness under pressure.”
Unlike many antipodeans who do a stint in London, Evans betrays barely a hint of homesickness. Since joining Harlequins, he has bedded down seamlessly in London, making his decision to stay far more straightforward.
“I’m pretty settled – I really enjoy London,” he says. “I miss the coast and the water of New Zealand but there’s always something going on over here. You can go anywhere – Europe’s only a hop, skip and a jump away and I like being just another face in the crowd.
“A big part of it is that I’m at a really good club and I’ve been enjoying my footy. If I was hating it, I’d probably be hating London and I wouldn’t have re-signed and I wouldn’t be here. But it’s a credit to Quins and their environment that I’ve really enjoyed playing here.”
And the season could hardly be going any better for Harlequins, who sit top of the table, having won their first six games. Last season, they were patchy throughout and finished a mediocre seventh. This year, though, they have been more assured, more clinical, holding their nerve at decisive points in tight matches.
“We’ve had a good start and it’s a crucial time before all the internationals come back. We knew we could get a bit of a jump on a few teams and we’ve done pretty well,” Evans says. “I think, just our decision-making and our composure on the ball have improved. Last season, we made bad decisions, especially in the opposition’s 22. We’ve worked really hard on that. We’ve knuckled down and identified when to offload and when not to. It sounds like simple stuff but it can make all the difference.”
This weekend, Harlequins host London Irish at Twickenham Stoop in the first round of pool matches for the LV Cup. Quins hung to beat Irish in the first round of the Premiership, with Evans kicking seven from seven, but bragging rights will once again be up for grabs.
“We played them first up and got the better of them so they’ll be out for revenge,” Evans says. “But it’s a different competition and there might be some young players getting a run, which adds some spice to it. Any derby is a big game, you definitely want the bragging rights, you want to be the best side in London.”