Paul Gustard talks Harlequins exit, ‘phenomenal’ Marcus Smith and Italy future

Harlequins dropped a bombshell when they announced in January that Paul Gustard had left his role as Head of Rugby by mutual consent, but it’s fair to say all parties are moving on.

While the English outfit more recently went on win their first Premiership title in just under a decade, Gustard has since been appointed defence coach with Benetton in northern Italy.

To call his Quins exit unceremonious would be putting it mildly, although Gustard looks back fondly on a lot of the progress he and his team made in two-and-a-half years at The Stoop.

That being said, there still appears to be at least some resentment for how things ended, with Gustard making sure to note he’s happy for most, but not all those at the club.

“If I have a foot in the past I will never move forward and I know the amount of work I did,” he told the Press Association.

“There are always two sides to a story and I don’t feel the need to say anything. My track record, what I have won as a coach and where I took the club from where they were to where they are now, speaks for itself. I’m delighted for the coaching group I assembled together there, delighted for (head of athletic performance) Gareth Tong, the strength and conditioning staff and the medical staff.

“And I’m delighted for most of the players because for them they worked really hard for two, three seasons and a lot of those guys I brought in. When you bring people to a club, you want them to do well because you put your name to their signings and you also believe in them.”

It’s true that while he wasn’t at the wheel by the time the ship docked in June, Quins’ crusade to their second Premiership title was built largely around assets he recruited and promoted.

Youngster Louis Lynagh scored two late tries to help decide their 40-28 win over Exeter Chiefs in the final, one of numerous players who made their entry into the senior squad under Gustard’s reign.

And Quins’ other try-scorers in the Twickenham decider—Wilco Louw, Alex Dombrandt and Andre Esterhuizen—each arrived at the club while Gustard was in the head role.

“I said at the beginning of the season that squad – if it stayed together – there was a great starting 23 there,” Gustard added.

“The team compared to three years ago when they finished joint eleventh before I came in is remarkably different. You could probably see from the team the kind of direction the club was heading in, it was to try and build a squad that could stay together for a long period, just as I had experienced at Saracens.”

Maintaining the same standards in the coming campaign will be an entirely new challenge, with former Bath and Canterbury coach Tabai Matson having been elected Gustard’s successor in July.

Marcus Smith is another one of those young talents who went through a key stage in his development under the old regime, although he debuted in 2017, nine months prior to Gustard’s arrival.

The 22-year-old’s performances for Quins—and more recently, England —were enough to convince Warren Gatland to call him into the British and Irish Lions squad as injury cover this summer.

Despite his age, he’ll be one of the stars expected to lead the club in their title defence, and Gustard was full of praise for how Smith has progressed: “Marcus is a phenomenal talent and there are a few at Harlequins.

“He always had the ability to run the ball, always had a beautiful passing game and his goal-kicking was excellent, but his game-management has come on light-years.”

There are no talents of quite that potential in Treviso, where Benetton are based, but that hasn’t harmed Gustard’s outlook on what the future may hold in northern Italy.

He’s been recruited to work as defence coach under ex-Italy international Marco Bortolami, though Gustard’s experience with Saracens and England could see his remit expanded.

Benetton will form part of the inaugural United Rugby Championship, a competition made up of 12 teams from Italy, Ireland, Wales and Scotland, as well as four from South Africa.

They head into the campaign having tasted their maiden piece of silverware this summer, hoping to build on their 35-8 routing of South Africa’s Bulls in the final of the Rainbow Cup.

“It is hugely exciting,” Gustard continued.

“If you look at some of the teams, Leinster have been a heavyweight of European rugby over the last six or seven years, Munster are another so there are multiple teams who would sit firmly in the Premiership top half.

“With the South African sides coming into it, it will offer a different challenge to what I normally face. It is hard at whatever level you play at in elite sport to win trophies and we were unbeaten in the Rainbow Cup so we go into the season on a high and with momentum. Now we need to build on it.”

Harlequins will begin the defence of their Premiership crown away to Newcastle Falcons on September 19, with the club now targeting back-to-back titles for the first time in their history.

But Gustard will be more focused on his own fresh start with Benetton, who are still waiting to learn the United Rugby Championship schedule, with the league slated to start on September 24.

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