Paul Gustard embracing Italian job but pleased to see old club Quins win title

Paul Gustard has revealed he was pleased to see Harlequins win the Gallagher Premiership title, but is eager to draw a line on his shock January exit after starting a “hugely exciting” new challenge at Benetton.

The former England assistant left his role with the London club at the beginning of 2021, six months before the end of the campaign following a poor start to the season.

While Gustard conceded he made mistakes during his two and a half years in the capital, he remains proud of his work at Quins, who produced a remarkable turnaround in form to beat Exeter in the play-off final at Twickenham.

“If I have a foot in the past I will never move forward and I know the amount of work I did,” Benetton’s new defence coach told the PA news agency.

“There is always two sides to a story and I don’t feel the need to say anything. I think 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 am 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 am 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.

“So, I am pleased for them and pleased for the fans. I had a lot of support from lots of fans and criticism from others, but that is the way it lands.

“It is not always down to one person but there were certainly some things that went wrong on my fault and lots of things that went well which were also down to me. I am pleased for them, happy for them but I move forward with my life, my family and move forward with Benetton.”

Following Gustard’s shock exit by mutual consent, a coaching committee led by general manager Billy Millard was tasked with salvaging a season which started with four defeats out of six before a painful 27-27 draw at home to London Irish.

It was another match where a lead had been relinquished and saw an early parting of ways for the former Saracens flanker and the club after fifth, then sixth-place finishes in the 45-year-old’s first two campaigns.

Reflecting on his tenure, Gustard explained his aim was to build a group capable of dominating English rugby and, while he was braced for life in Italy by the time of Quins’ 40-38 triumph over Exeter at Twickenham, his fingerprints were visible with two-try hero Louis Lynagh integrated under the Geordie’s watch and other try-scorers Wilco Louw and Andre Esterhuizen his signings.

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

“The team compared to three years ago when they finished joint 11th, 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.”

Harlequins v Exeter Chiefs – Gallagher Premiership – Final – Twickenham Stadium
Harlequins players celebrated winning the Gallagher Premiership final at Twickenham in June (Nigel French/PA)

Australian Millard would eventually steer Quins’ ship back on course with the thrilling June 26 win across the road from their Twickenham Stoop home the culmination of an extraordinary campaign.

With crucial support from coaches Nick Evans, Adam Jones, Jerry Flannery and Charlie Mulchrone, Quins triumphed in 11 of their 16 final league fixtures before seeing off Bristol and Exeter in the play-offs following Gustard’s exit.

The architect behind so much of the team’s exhilarating play was fly-half Marcus Smith, who racked up 286 points during a memorable season where he would eventually make the England and then British and Irish Lions squad.

“Marcus is a phenomenal talent and there are a few at Harlequins,” Gustard said.

“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.”

After leaving one club which went on to secure silverware in June, Gustard has moved to another fresh from an historic triumph.

Benetton finished bottom of the regular Guinness PRO14 season after a winless 16 league fixtures but regrouped for the Rainbow Cup to reach the final, where they dismantled South African opposition Blues 35-8.

It gave the Italian franchise a maiden international trophy and Gustard is eager to build on that while he enjoys the challenge of the division newly named the United Rugby Championship.

“It is hugely exciting,” the experienced coach said. “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.”