The Kiwi who found a home at the Stoop
May 8, 2014
Nick Evans has found a home from home at Harlequins © Getty Images
When Nick Evans took a leap into the unknown and announced he was moving to Harlequins nearly six years ago to the day, he knew there would be various parts of the sport and lifestyle that would be drastically different to the life he knew in Auckland. The move kicked up one almighty fuss within the All Blacks' hierarchy but when you have Dan Carter above you in the pecking order "killing it", in Evans' words, international prospects seem bleak.
Six years on and Evans, now 33, is a crowd favourite, a match-winner and part of Harlequins' backbone.
It could have been a very different story. When he decided to up sticks and leave the Blues, he was chased by Leicester, Gloucester and the Cardiff Blues, alongside your usual clubs from France and Japan, and the Tigers were an attraction but after analysing the various suitor's playing philosophies he opted for Harlequins. "It ticked the three boxes," Evans told ESPN. "Harlequins offered the benefit of their location, style of play and ambition."
A few months into his time at Quins, it was going well for Evans and his team. His late drop-goal in the Heineken Cup pool stages against Stade Francais after 29 phases was one of the tournament's great moments and he had taken to the style of the Premiership with ease but he had to change various parts of his own individual mindset to suit his new surroundings.
"We were sucked into these dog battles of games and it took a toll on my legs and I got injured a lot. I had to make sure that to get the best out of myself I had to look after body and mind."
Then everything changed in Harlequins' world when they went through the infamous Bloodgate scandal. "The club pretty much imploded" Evans remembers with the following year "a battle for survival". It was a seminal moment for both player and club.
That famous drop-goal against Stade Francais © Getty Images
"There weren't doubts within my mind over the move I had just made, but there was a realisation of just how big a task we were facing. There were no regrets, doubts but just a moment of clarity over what we were in. I saw it as a massive challenge.
"The year after Bloodgate we were yelled at wherever we went. It's a tattoo the club will have for the rest of its life. Conor [O'Shea] got the players concentrating on what they needed to do, he knew that if we won trophies, the rest of it would be water under the bridge. I like to think we are now one of the neutrals favourite teams."
Four years on and Evans and Quins have changed hugely. O'Shea, when he took up the reins in March 2010, got the club back on the straight and narrow after heroic work by John Kingston in the interim, who is still Quins' head coach. For Evans, even though he is now one of the Premiership's top players and one who seems to find playing the game easy, it has taken the odd adjustment here and there to give off that aura of calmness.
"I had to adapt to the style of rugby. In Super Rugby most teams are littered with internationals but here there are guys who have played one year of professional rugby and others who have 50 or so Test caps. There is a diversity here in that regard. It took a while to adapt to having the crowd quiet when you kick. In New Zealand they boo and yell, it's white noise, but over here everyone goes deathly quiet. You think 'oh shit, people are actually concentrating on me' so that took some getting used to.
"And there's also the length of the season, you just can't put everything into training, you have to be so focused game to game and play the best you can. I learnt that can be mentally tough as you have to switch off. Conor is fantastic and he helps the older guys by giving them breaks when needed.
"You're no use if you're fatigued. Like any professional sports person you go in and out of form and over the last three or four years I am a cog in a big Quins machine so if everyone else is on form then you'll get the result."
The club has also changed off the field. "The 'Big Game' has been huge, the fan base has risen, the matchday experience is now better. On the field the team has continually progressed after promotion in 2006, bar the year after Bloodgate. Everyone has got involved with what Quins is about, the style of the play and we haven't completely changed that. There have been the odd tweaks here and there but as a group we have stayed the same and that helped towards silverware."
The Amlin Challenge Cup triumph in 2011 and the Premiership title the following year will sit proudly in Evans' own personal silverware archives and the continual ambition of the club saw him spurn a variety of offers at times throughout his time at Quins. There were suggestions before his last contract extension in December 2012 that those offers from abroad may prove to be too much of a lure, but while rumours have a habit of snowballing, Evans calmly weighed up the various options at his disposal.
Amlin Cup glory in 2011 © Getty Images
He felt Japan offered limited opportunities for life after rugby as you are "out of sight out of mind, it can be a graveyard for some players" while France offered a different life, but again, he failed to see any obvious reasons for a move. "I felt I had more to give Quins, my family is happy here and that was more than enough".
Talking to Evans he sounds unintentionally like a club ambassador. Although he laughs at such a suggestion, he does genuinely "love the club", in his own words. It has been an incredible journey over the last six years, complete with ups and downs, but he is not considering ending it quite yet.
"It does seem like ages ago when I moved but it's gone bloody quick. Time flies when you are having fun. It is enjoyable at training, we are enjoying our rugby. There are times where we struggle but we get through it. It's a fantastic club and I'm at the point where I haven't got left much time left in professional rugby but I take a lot of pride out of seeing the England guys play for their country alongside our success at Quins. It is fun; it just comes down to those three letters really."
Instead of considering life after rugby and all those worries, for him, the only focus is Saturday's game against Bath at the Stoop. It is a straight shootout for a spot in the Premiership's play-offs and like all big occasions, it needs a big player. It easily conceivable that Evans could prove to be the difference between the two teams, something he has been on countless occasions over the last six years.
"We've had such a tough season injury wise, we were decimated by injuries. Since that London Irish game we've had a cup final mentality. We've won four out of five, losing in the Amlin semi. We've got ourselves in a position where it's in our hands and that's what we wanted.
"We've worked bloody hard and we can now control our own destiny. It's a straight shootout between us and Bath. They're a fantastic side with a great big pack and play some good rugby. But we're at the Stoop, the crowd is fantastic and hopefully we can get them roaring for us and it is winner takes all. In these kinds of games, funny things happen. We just need to make the most of it, take our chances and hopefully we can get the job done."
© Getty Images
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Associate Editor of ESPNscrum.
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