How trusting university talent has helped Harlequins challenge for the title

Alex Dombrandt is one of the major university rugby success stories
©Getty images for Harlequins. By Steve Bardens

From putting half a century of points on Worcester Warriors to last gasp rescue acts against London Irish and Wasps, Harlequins fans might be the envy of many given the entertainment value their team is providing on a weekly basis.

For the 4,000 in attendance at a sun-drenched Stoop last weekend, they were able to watch their side in the flesh for the first time since September as Quins yet again put their supporters through a rollercoaster of emotions before eventually sealing their place in the Premiership semi-finals.

The frenetic nature of their 44-33 victory over Bath is in keeping with the way Quins have played since Paul Gustard exited the club in January. Free-flowing and always looking to get on the front foot when in possession, it is not surprising to see why they have scored the most points in the league this term.

Defensively they still look ropey - having shipped an average of 32.2 points in their last five fixtures - but Quins are a team brimming with confidence. Joe Marler and Danny Care have certainly played their part in helping the club turn their fortunes around, whilst despite having an off-colour day from the tee against Bath, Marcus Smith has been superb.

The mix of past title winners and exuberant youth bodes well for Quins and intertwined into the current fabric of the squad are four players who have treaded similar paths to reach the top of the club game.

When Quins revealed their starting XV ahead of last weekend, their back-row was Tom Lawday, Jack Kenningham and Alex Dombrandt. What do they all have in common aside from packing down together?

Along with centre Luke Northmore, their journeys to the Premiership contain a chapter dedicated to university rugby, which to varying degrees, helped the quartet launch their careers.

Dombrandt is a name a lot of people have been shouting from the rooftops for a while now. Still only 24, the former Cardiff Met man is into his third campaign as a Quin and he can be the nucleus of this side for years to come.

The platform which university rugby offered Dombrandt cannot be underestimated. He arrived at Quins with highlight reels showcasing his destructive line breaks and dynamism which immediately added an extra edge to the club’s attack. His explosive performances deservedly drew the attention of many, including England head coach Eddie Jones.

In 2019, Dombrandt produced a Man of the Match display against the Barbarians and he was also part of England’s initial training squad for the World Cup, but Jones has not called on his services since then.

However, the back-rower’s phone might not be silent for too much longer given his improvements this season. Dombrandt’s brilliant offload for Stephan Lewies’ try last weekend is a part of his repertoire we have seen time and time again, but according to his old university coach, the 24-year-old has taken his all-round game to the next level.

“Let’s not make any bones about it, we think the university pathway is a great pathway for young players but it is always going to take time for people to adapt to the week in, week out of Premiership rugby,” Cardiff Met Director of Rugby Danny Milton told TRU.

“To see Alex’s progress, to see Alex captaining the side and the growth he has had both on and off the field has been brilliant. What I think has definitely been evident has been his more sustained contributions to every game. He has always shown those flashy, individual bits of brilliance, but what I think he has started to show is that more consistent performance which is great.”

As Milton alludes to, Dombrandt’s collective qualities have led to him skippering Quins and those leadership skills were nurtured during his time at Cardiff Met.

The Archers reached the BUCS Super Rugby final in 2018 and in the absence of regular captain Aled Evans, Milton handed the armband to Dombrandt without a second thought.

“I don’t think Harlequins would pick somebody as captain if they didn’t show leadership qualities,” Milton adds. “I think that is probably evident and testament to Alex’s development to now start to see him in that leadership role. It just adds to his more rounded game.

“It wasn’t something I naturally saw in his first year, but as he grew and as he developed, it started to come through. What he is very good at is getting other people around him and getting other people to want to follow him. When Aled was injured, we weren’t looking around thinking whether Alex could do it. It was 100 per cent because of the way he had developed in that area.”

Dombrandt’s work ethic has not gone unnoticed either as the hype surrounding Quins' first top-flight semi-final since 2014 starts to build.

It is clear he has improved his fitness levels given the amount of minutes he has played this season [1,630] and Milton is quick to tell a story about the back-rower during his university life: “I used to always catch him coming out of Tesco with cream buns! My wife and I had popped out and were walking down the road and we saw Alex and Luke [Northmore] coming out of Tesco and Alex had this big cream bun.

“Luke always looked after himself and he was meticulous in his planning and then you have got Alex there trying to hide this big box of doughnuts so that always makes me laugh to this day!!”

In fact, it was in Tesco where Northmore found out Dombrandt had signed for Quins and 12 months later, the centre was the next player off the Cardiff Met production line to be heading to the Stoop.

The 24-year-old excelled under the guidance of Milton and both players have never forgotten their roots despite starring in the Premiership. Injuries may have hampered Northmore’s start at Quins, but his sixth try of the season against Bath is credit to his sheer persistence and unquestionable talent.

“If you look back to last week and the talent Quins have in the squad, Joe Marchant was out on the wing and Luke was starting in the centre and you do think ‘wow’ because it highlights that Luke is starting to show his worth in the Quins environment,” Milton says.

“I will always remember watching Luke play in a third team game for us early on in his first year. You just saw his natural ability which had been untapped at that point, but you knew that having that ability in the game that he would develop.

“I always knew what an attacking threat he was, but I think his defensive work is what now stands out to us at Cardiff Met the most, how much that side of his game has improved. Thirteen is a difficult position to defend from especially at that level so to see the way he has come on and developed is fantastic.”

Milton says “he won’t do Eddie Jones’ job for him” but does feel his former stars can offer an element of ‘x-factor’ to England if they are to be selected this summer.

Jones will name his squad on June 10th for Tests against the USA and Canada and before his injury, Quins’ Will Evans may well have featured in his plans.

The flanker broke his leg against London Irish back in April, but ex-University of Bath player Jack Kenningham has filled the void left by Evans and grabbed his opportunity with both hands.

The strides he has made this season have had a positive impact on the Quins team. A quality of Evans’ is his willingness to put his body on the line and it is something Kenningham exhibited last weekend with his 18 tackles.

“Jack spent two years with us,” Aaron James, Head of Rugby at the University of Bath, tells TRU. “He came through to us through our relationship with Harlequins’ academy. He had a really good first year with us and he was Player of the Season. That was down to his outstanding work rate that shone through and he has got that self-drive. We nicknamed him the Labrador because when you unleash him, he is off everywhere and on to the next thing and the next thing with his blonde hair!

“You know whatever minutes Jack is on the pitch, he is going to max out. I am really pleased to have been part of his journey and pleased that he has gone on to better things.”

Kenningham's fearlessness has seen the brain’s trust at the Stoop continually back the youngster and they have been rewarded.

It is important to also acknowledge the work of the Quins academy for bringing the 21-year-old through their system and James hasn’t been surprised by Kenningham’s development at his boyhood club.

“You have got to put yourself in a position where the coaches have got some confidence to give you a shot and Quins have done that. Jack’s qualities as a person means he can fit in well in an environment. He has got a high work rate and he is very self-driven and self-managed to try and get better. Those are the qualities, in my view, that give you a shot.

“We are fortunate to see these guys at an age where they are maturing both physically and mentally in a big team environment and what that does for them. He is now an academy player who has played BUCS Super Rugby and England Students to someone who is becoming an established Premiership player, but he has earned that trust from coaches and teammates. It will give him the belief that he can actually do this and guys like Jack are not out of place in the Premiership.”

Kenningham, Dombrandt, Northmore and Lawday highlight the productive university pathway. The latter, who James worked with during his time with England Students, signed a new deal with Quins back in March after originally joining the club in 2019 from Exeter Chiefs.

It was in Devon where Lawday burst onto the scene. His exploits in the Green and White of the University of Exeter during 2016/17 saw him collect the BUCS Super Rugby Player of the Season award alongside Italian international Seb Negri [Hartpury].

Thirteen tries in 12 appearances helped pave the way for a place in the Chiefs academy before penning his first senior contract at Quins two years ago.

“I think that back-row last week for Quins really does speak for itself when it comes to university rugby,” James adds. “They are all different types of players and they then go out and perform like they do? Well done to them!

“It is pleasing to see Tom in there as well. I think with him, if you could name a top five players in BUCS Super Rugby when he was about, he would be in there. He is a top performer, but off the field, he is a good leader as is Luke who I also worked with at England Students.

“They’ve gone on to mature as rugby characters and put themselves in a good place to be noticed. Tom was brilliant at Exeter Uni and Luke used to cut teams up for fun every week so with their skills and hard running ability, they continue to make steps forward and it is pleasing to be a small part of their journeys too.”

Quins have rotated their squad for this Friday’s clash with Sale Sharks and only the aforementioned Lawday [who has made 18 appearances this term] is in the matchday 23.

With a top-four place wrapped up, it gives Dombrandt, Northmore and Kenningham a chance to recharge their batteries ahead of the upcoming play-offs.

The target of a home semi-final is still within their reach should they pick up a victory at the AJ Bell Stadium, but whatever Quins manage to achieve between now and the Premiership final on June 26th, the spread of university talent within their squad has played a part in giving the club a shot at their first title since 2012.

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