Harlequins can win the Premiership again — but they are not the only contenders in south-west London

I’ve said for quite a while that if you live in West London and want entertainment, go and watch Harlequins and London Irish play. They are both great to watch.

It’s interesting how the mindset of being an attacking-based side brings out the best in players, both young and old. The difficulty you have, though, with predicting this London derby on Saturday is both sides are the comeback kids. They’re fully capable of coming from behind to win. So, if you have two sides who both like scoring points in the second half, which of them will take the risk and go all out in the first?

Irish are a fascinating side – just one win all season, with three draws, yet they are only three points behind Exeter in fourth place. They have turned around some unbelievable deficits, as have Harlequins.

Irish thought they would bring in a lot of big names up front and that group would provide the leg work in their side, but it’s really been the younger players who have impressed: Tom Parton, Ollie Hassell-Collins, the flanker Tom Pearson who was player of the match last Friday against Saracens. It’s not been all about the imports when it comes to Irish’s mindset. But if they could just be that bit stronger mentally, starting games as well as they finish them, then Irish would be a proper threat this season – almost like Harlequins were last season. They are that hard to play against.

The only problem is we are just getting into the wetter, darker months of the season. It’s not the Serengeti, but conditions become that much harder to play in. Do London Irish have that adaptation in their game? It’s not quite like 10 years ago – the pitches are all so good now that even if it is hammering down, you can still play running rugby on each surface.

So, how do Irish find their way up the league – because they are a really good side in terms of their attack. They stretch defences and the way Paddy Jackson has been playing has been immense. He has missed a couple of kicks to win games in the final minutes but, that aside, Jackson has really held that forward pack and backline together.

If you look at Harlequins, they are similar to Irish with that loose style of play, but the difference is London Irish don’t have a South African giant in midfield called Andre Esterhuizen. There are other strong ball-carriers too: Luke Northmore and Cadan Murley.

I’m not sure that Irish have the same physical carriers in their backline, they are more akin to finding space. Terrence Hepetema is quite small and keeps getting sent off. Curtis Rona has more size but is more of a 13. If you put a centre like Esterhuizen in that Irish backline, it would just give them a bit more balance. And Irish’s forwards are good, they can get around the field. Agustin Creevy, the Argentina hooker who is now 36, is arguably the player of the season so far.

There are six or seven sides who could win it this season

As for Harlequins, they have handled an issue at fly-half rather well with Marcus Smith away combined with Tommaso Allan being out injured, with Will Edwards coming in and performing well.

Now the mindset in the league has changed, with more focus on creating space as opposed to gaining field position, that has opened the door for former sevens players such as Edwards, who can appreciate space and create it better than most, to be effective in XVs.

Of Harlequins’ England contingent, Joe Marler will feature against Irish, with Smith, Alex Dombrandt and Joe Marchant all rested, but Harlequins still look strong.

They absolutely deserve to be in the title conversation. I saw Danny Care saying that ‘everyone has written us off, no one thinks we can do it again, but we absolutely can’, and I fully agree – Harlequins at full strength absolutely can win the Premiership again. But there are six or seven sides who could win it this season. Leicester might run away with first place, even though it will be interesting to see what they do with George Ford now he is leaving. But, after that, you have three play-off places and several teams who could fill them, including London Irish.

This game should be a showpiece for the more attacking mindset of how to play rugby. They had two cracking games last season, with Irish grabbing a late draw at The Stoop and Harlequins snatching victory in Brentford with that dramatic late try from Smith.

It’s a proper local derby again now Irish have moved back into London round the corner. Two brilliantly entertaining teams, and going to either ground makes for a cracking day out. Hopefully, I have not jinxed it and we will avoid watching a 3-3 draw.

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