Will Collier Exclusive: 'I think we have the ability to make back-to-back titles a reality'

Will Collier joined Harlequins in 2009 and also enjoyed Premiership success in 2012
©JMP for Harlequins

Will Collier walks into the coffee shop at Surrey Sports Park with an ice cream in each hand, his water bottle and boot bag tucked beneath his right arm.

“I couldn’t turn up with one for myself,” the tighthead prop joked after we moved to a quieter spot to sit down and begin our conversation.

It should be mentioned that having an ice cream van on-site is not a regular occurrence at Quins, but one borne to get players in the best of spirits ahead of the Big Summer Kick-Off fixture against Gloucester this weekend at Twickenham.

It was Jack Kenningham dolling out the seasonal treat, and even though Collier had definitely earned his after a tough training session beneath the blazing mid-May sunshine, when we sat down, there were several moments of silence as we tucked in.

Topics of conversation included remarks about the cost of a 99 now being £2.50, as well as Collier’s birthday trip to Rye in East Sussex during the squad’s time off while European competition raged on in the background.

“It is a tricky one when you are at this stage of the season,” Collier said. “Especially for me with a few niggles I have been managing, you have got to keep training, you can’t have two or three days properly doing nothing.

“You have got to keep the momentum going and it is only effectively four weeks, with the final [included], left. It is going to go like that [clicks fingers], so you just want to keep your head down really.”

With two games left of the Gallagher Premiership season, Harlequins move into their clash with George Skivington’s team knowing that a win will earn them a semi-final whilst the Cherry and Whites will be targeting a victory which would make their hopes of reaching the playoffs all the more achievable.

So far it is only Leicester Tigers and Saracens who have confirmed they will be playing meaningful rugby in June, with Quins leading the chasing pack when it comes to finishing in the top four.

But even being the most likely of Northampton Saints, Gloucester and Exeter Chiefs to make the playoffs, Tabai Matson’s team went into their break off the back of a loss against the aforementioned Saints. 

The 32-31 defeat was yet another exhilarating fixture involving Quins and on this occasion, the game had to be moved to uncontested scrums in the first half when both of Saints’ tighthead props had to depart the field due to injury.

It was the eighth time that Harlequins have lost in the Premiership all season, the same number the team experienced in 2020/21.

Of course, last season will live long in the memory for years to come, the club upsetting the odds with a comeback win over Exeter in the final at Twickenham. For Collier, he experienced domestic success for the second time in The Quarters, the prop one of several to be part of the group in 2011/12 that achieved the same feat.

In the months that followed, Quins saw numerous members of their squad gain international recognition. Part of the story was that the club won the Premiership thanks to being player-led, the coaching group headed up by Billy Millard letting those under their charge dictate how the game would be played.

“We have quite an interesting demographic and the dynamic of this group is quite interesting,” Collier said. “With some of the older heads, which we haven’t got many, but we are incredibly close, whereas you look at other clubs in the late 20s early 30s bracket, they have far more players. We have quite a few less.

“We are incredibly tight and I think having three or four players, myself included, that have been there in that 2012 group, being able to speak about that experience to the lads here, and how exciting that could be, is a massive thing.

"We did it last year and now they are doing the same thing and they are speaking about it to the other boys that are joining the squad.

“I think that is the foundation. It is the experience and this incredible, incredible youth, which is absolutely mad with the talent we have got in the squad coming through. 

“You can mention the big names like the [Marcus] Smith’s and the [Alex] Dombrandt’s, but the lads who don’t make the headlines quite as much like the [Tom] Lawday’s, the [Cadan] Murley’s, the [James] Chisholm’s, the [Jack] Walker’s, we are really lucky with that.”

First joining the club in 2009, Collier has had something of a renaissance season at The Stoop. Hitting the 200-game mark and scoring a try for the ages against Bristol last October, in February it was announced that the England international had signed a new deal to stay put in West London for a while longer.

Not just reaching landmarks, the 31-year-old’s performances have been at an extremely high standard, with scrum coach Adam Jones saying that the tighthead was a “key part” of the club’s Premiership win and in the new season, his resurgence has come as a result of keeping fit and getting back to the basics.

“I have strung together a lot of games, and I have been fit, and that has given me a lot of confidence,” Collier said. “I think the age I am I have just turned 31 which is the best age for a tighthead, and I feel like I have got real confidence in my ability now which comes through playing a lot of rugby and primarily through experience.

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“It is really important as a tighthead to have that experience, and to go through that many hours of scrummaging. I feel like I am in a great place there. I am just loving it. I am absolutely loving my rugby, I am loving playing with this group, I am loving hopefully building this legacy here at Quins.

“It is a really unique environment, and I think the boys realise that and realise how lucky we are to be playing in this and being a part of it. The foundations of myself are scrummaging, that’s what I set myself apart from, hopefully, but then being able to add other things to my game. I think we have got great people here to help me do that.”

Part of Collier’s injury setbacks were in some ways brought about by a change in lifestyle, lots of rugby in quick succession and lockdown meaning that he couldn’t maintain his levels of training that came before Covid-19.

“We played a lot of rugby really quick, I had a child, and didn’t necessarily have the best pre-season because I was basically in for a week and then played matches which was crazy,” Collier said.

“Having a kid, it was a bit of a whirlwind and then you are into three matches a week. On the back of that, I was out for about six months in the end. I was pretty unlucky with it. Obviously, that knocks your confidence a bit because you are just so scared of getting injured so you slightly protect yourself.

“To be honest, I quickly forgot about that especially when I came back into playing last year when we won and the momentum when I was coming back into the squad. You forget about that type of thing. You are massively caught up in the moment.

During the first lockdown, Collier lost five kilograms and became a father
©JMP for Harlequins

“I was a lot lighter as well. I think I was five kilograms lighter than what I am now and having that extra bit of weight [back] has helped massively with the way I want to play the game in terms of physicality, the tackling, the attack and then the scrum.”

It was largely thanks to trying to keep up with “good mate” Ben Tapuai that Collier shed some of that weight, but now heavier, he has very much gone back to those foundations. For all of Harlequins’ attacking flair, much of what the team does in attack wouldn’t be possible without a strong set-piece.

This season, the scrum in particular seems to have taken on an extra relevance, many teams centring their game around it. With a prop in front of me, who had put down his ice cream by this point, it felt rude not to ask if the set-piece has taken on more importance in recent months.

“I think this year it is, weirdly,” Collier said. “I am not quite sure why really. I think people are identifying it more as a weapon. It is an interesting one. With games getting a lot tighter and I think the skill, the free-flowing rugby, and how important territory is in these games with the kicking battle, if you have got a scrum to relieve pressure in the key area or put pressure on in the key area, it is huge.

“You get into the opposition 22m and win a scrum penalty, you are confident that you have got players who 70 per cent of the time will convert that into points with the skill they have. At the moment, it is weird how it fluctuates because it is such an important part of the game.

“There was a quote when Leicester had Coley [Dan Cole] and Castro [Martin Castrogiovanni] as their tightheads. They used to say, ‘the two most important players in the squad are your tighthead and tighthead’.

“Their dynasty was built on the scrum and set piece dominance. I love to think that is part of what we are actually building here when you unpick all of the flash stuff.”

As a prop, it will come as no surprise that Collier takes a lot of pride in his efforts at the scrum and builds in his physicality in the loose around that. 

Whilst every conversation about Harlequins ultimately ends up as a chat about the ‘Quins way’ and playing with that never-say-die attitude, as Collier says, when you unpick it all, there is a grit and determination which underlies everything that the team does best.

“It is the balance, and with the skill, the talent and the flair we have got in the backs, if you are able to give them an attacking platform or even just a stable platform for them to be able to do what they do, it is huge," Collier said. "They wouldn’t be able to do the magic that they do.

“I think people are starting to realise that but also when you see a scrum marching forward, like we have managed to do a few times this year and especially when we are at The Stoop in front of the home fans, they have started to understand how important that is.

“They probably always did but are seeing it happen more frequently now. When they get that excited and you get up from a scrum and they go mad, it is a huge energy boost, a massive energy boost for all the players and then it saps energy away from the opposition. People are definitely starting to remember how important the scrum is.”

A quick glance at a clock and it quickly becomes apparent that Collier’s time is almost up. He has a family to go back to after all so the natural final port of call is his and his teammates' ambitions with just several weeks of the season left.

Last year, even after the club finished in the playoff spots, not many would have put that much stock in the Londoners winning the whole thing. Collier has recently rewatched both the final and semi-final, reliving the highs and the lows of those 180 minutes, each game having plenty of moments where victory seemed highly unlikely.

Even though the Premiership final ended in a greater prize, the semi-final at Ashton Gate lives firmly in the memory. Quins supporters were put in their own section of the stadium - starting the argument about separating fans - and they created a partisan atmosphere in the West Country as their side came back from 28-0 down to win the game 43-36 after extra-time.

“My wife was down there, she went full football hooligan,” Collier laughed. “You looked up and they were like ‘aaah’. It was amazing. They were going mad. It didn’t take long to see or hear them.

“Dommers’ try was the momentum shift I think. When he did the breakthrough, it was ‘boom’ and everyone believed. Everyone suddenly believed. Even at half-time, we spoke about it and I don’t think people believe us when we say, even at half-time we believed we could do it.

“It was kind of like ‘if anyone can, it is us’. We had that belief that we thought it was by no means over, regardless of how far down we were and how bad we had been in that first half.”

Had Collier ever experienced that sort of belief before?

“I don’t think it is you know,” he said. “Not quite to that extent especially when the odds are that stacked against you, to think ‘this is no biggy, we are down by almost 30 points, it is fine lads, it is fine’. 

“You rationalise that to think, 'how the hell can you do that against this quality Bristol outfit that led the league the whole way through' but it was just there, and that is down to the captaincy and the squad, I think.”

At this stage of the season, speaking to the incumbent champions ahead of a potentially season-defining fixture, there was only one way to finish off this conversation before getting on a train back to Central London; can Quins go all the way again?

“You almost don’t want to speak about it,” Collier said. “We whispered about winning the league last year and having that belief and then we actually did it.

“It took a while to sink in and now we are at the stage where there are whispers of ‘can we go back-to-back?’. The belief is there, it is definitely there because we have got the talent and the means to do it.

“The stats of people that have done it back-to-back are interesting because we went around asking if we wanted to try and do that or win Europe. I originally said Europe, but you look at teams that have gone back-to-back in the Premiership and to do it is the rarest thing.

“Hardly any teams have done it, like two or three. That’s the dream at this stage, and I think we have the ability to make it a reality.”