Can Harlequins continue their stunning Premiership form?
With the World Cup internationals now back at their clubs, can pacesetters Harlequins continue their push for the Premiership?
When England lifted the William Webb Ellis Cup eight years ago, English domestic rugby was all about Leicester Tigers.
They were the gods of the English game, claiming eight of the last 14 Premiership titles and finishing second in two more.
Seven of the Tigers’ players would then go forward to engrave their names in sporting history, including legends such as Martin Johnson, Neil Back and Lewis Moody.
This World Cup has been no different. Six Tigers players represented England, as well as two Argentinians, a Samoan, an Irishman, an Italian, a Tongan played in New Zealand.
But an interesting trend has emerged – a trend which has seen the monsters of rugby falter in domestic competition on the approach to, and during, Rugby World Cup years.
In 2003, the Tigers lost eight matches and finished fifth, while in 2007 they recorded nine losses, finishing fourth. This season, they sit second from bottom, having lost five out of their seven games.
World Cup years have left them struggling, forcing them to work twice as hard to pull themselves out of the lower depths of the table for a respectable finish.
And it has allowed other clubs to get a boot ahead in the opening stages of the season and gain some momentum ready for the World Cup returners to mix things up a bit.
This season, these cards have undoubtedly been handed to Harlequins director of rugby Conor O’Shea and his squad.
Quins have got off to the dream start in the Aviva Premiership this season, winning all nine of their games, as well as two in the LV= Cup and two in the Heineken Cup to give them a perfect record.
Their performances against historically stronger squads have been outstanding and, apart from near slip-ups against Sale Sharks and Exeter Chiefs, they have consistently come up with the goods.
However, with the return of star players, fresh from the World Cup in New Zealand, come new dangers.
Harlequins have welcomed back Argentinian Tomas Vallejos and Samoan Maurie Fa’asavalu along with talisman and England No8 Nick Easter.
But Leicester Tigers have welcomed back as many as nine internationals for their first domestic appearances this season.
England-capped Quins captain and flanker Chris Robshaw was positive during pre-season about what was ahead for his squad in light of the Rugby World Cup.
“Those that we have lost have been really influential players for us – you’ve got to make the best of it,” he said.
“Some clubs, such as Leicester Tigers, are worse off and in the end I’m sure it will balance itself out.”
The question is, will the return of the internationals give teams such as Tigers an edge in the second half of the season, or will Harlequins hold strong with a largely unchanged squad?
“We maintain that this isn’t about winning the Premiership, it’s about setting our statement week in and week out,” O’Shea said.
“We show a heck of a lot of fight and we are certainly going to go to the bitter end in every game this year.
“We now have a great platform to build on and the boys are enjoying coming to play rugby which is the way it should be.”
After a comfortable win over bottom-of-the-table Newcastle Falcons, Quins make the short journey to Wasps next weekend for a derby which could see Quins’ toughest match to date.
Quins wing Seb Stegmann is up for the challenge after returning this season following a two-year lay-off due to a knee injury.
“We are going to fully focus on wasps in the local derby,” the 22-year-old said. “It’s fun knowing that teams are going to come at us so hard because every week you have got to expect the very best of yourselves and really psyche yourselves up – we are not becoming complacent.”