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On January 20, Paul Gustard left his role as Harlequins' Head of Rugby after two-and-a-half years, with the club seventh in the Gallagher Premiership and having won two of their six matches.
Rather than appoint a new head coach or director of rugby, Harlequins general manager Billy Millard and the club's assistant coaches – Nick Evans (attack and backs), Jerry Flannery (lineout and defence), Adam Jones (scrum) and Charlie Mulchrone (skills) – began working away to transform Harlequins' season with the input of senior players including Danny Care, Mike Brown, captain Stephan Lewies and more.
On Saturday, after an extraordinary extra-time semi-final victory over Bristol, Harlequins will walk over the A316 and into Twickenham for their first Premiership final in nine years against Exeter Chiefs. Here, in their own words, is how they turned their season around.
Billy Millard, general manager
The coaches have been awesome. It was hard for them early on, with the change. They had to step up into that void pretty quickly. We have a lot of fun, we work hard, we trust each other, and they've just gone from strength to strength.
The shared leadership model, there is nothing new in what we are doing. Everyone has got a job to do, everyone is really good at it, and everyone trusts each other to work together. It has been really enjoyable.
There was no temptation [to not appoint a head coach for next season] – Harlequins are set to announce their new head coach next week. All the good clubs in world sport, while you are doing well you have to keep evolving. To get another senior, experienced set of eyes involved can't hurt, to compliment what we have already got. There's been no backtracking.
We've got some amazing, individual staff members here who are incredible at their job and have just had to step up and lead their areas. We've empowered our playing group. There's no magic wand here. Our leadership group has a lot to offer. When you give them a bit of responsibility, they tend to drive a lot of the stuff later in the week and the coaches can step back a bit. That altogether has worked well.
We've had a bit of luck, but there is a pretty special bond between these players, and I think you saw that on the weekend [against Bristol]. That doesn't come from fluke, that's boys having a pretty deep connection and doing it for each other, which is probably the secret ingredient.
Stephan Lewies, captain
I have spoken to [Gustard] since he left, he congratulated us on the semi-finals when we made it, so, yeah, no hard feelings.
I spoke to the group three or four weeks ago and said, listen, so many guys go throughout their career almost cruising, you get to a semi-final and you are happy to take part and you get to the end of your career and there are some great players who finish their career and didn’t win anything at the end of it.
I was lucky to win a trophy when I was 21 [the Currie Cup] but since then I haven’t played in a final yet. So these games don’t come by every week and it would be massive to lift that cup on Saturday. I think the boys understand how big an occasion it will be.
Jerry Flannery, lineout and defence coach
Everyone has had to step up, because when we lost Gussy [Paul Gustard] it meant there was more of a workload there. So everyone owned their own areas a bit more.
I learned quite a lot when I was working with Gussy. I was always keen on working with Jacques Nienaber [now South Africa's head coach] as defence has always interested me, and I fell into the defence role when he left [Munster]. There is a little bit more work but the fact is everyone stepped up, all staff, all players and it meant it was an easier load to carry.
We started off with no real pressure on us. When someone sacks a coach the expectation is things are going to fall apart. They genuinely don’t think things are going to kick on, so the bar was very, very low in terms of what the expectations are.
Teams probably had a false view of where we were because we were missing a lot of our best players when Gussy was here. We had actually only lost two games in the league, against Bristol and Exeter, when Gussy left. We got Stephan Lewies and others back, and other teams had lost players through injury and international call-ups.
Teams didn’t see us as a major threat, so we stole a good deal of momentum there. Confidence is a big factor. There were questions asked of the players when Gussy left, and they stepped up.
Danny Care, scrum-half, Premiership winner in 2012 with Harlequins
If anyone was at the Racing game at home (Harlequins lost 7-49), that was one where we were seriously questioning what we were doing. I was certainly questioning myself, whether I'm a good rugby player or not. That was a really tough day. We were playing a good side, but to lose the way we did wasn't us.
We went back to what we’re good at, back to what we believe in and that’s an attacking brand of rugby. We wanted to put smiles on people’s faces.
For us, the response that we’ve had from fans, from kids, has been unbelievable about how they’ve fallen back in love with Harlequins again and if we’ve made some kids around the world pick up a rugby ball and want to play like Harlequins then for me we’ve done our job.
I’m not getting any younger so I don’t know how many more opportunities I’m going to get to play for this unbelievable club, let alone lift a trophy so I’m trying to embrace every moment.
I think the turnaround has been amazing and I think it's been all about a mindset of us going back to what we believe in. There's a real belief throughout the whole club; on and off the field everyone is fighting for the same goal. We've got to the big dance on Saturday. We just hope we can go all the way.