Sunday, October 17News That Matters

Harlequins Danny Care admits he’s ‘playing without a burden’ after falling out of the England fold

You could say the Lions were the elephant in the room. Danny Care wanted to steer clear but when the subject came up he did not duck it.

The Harlequins veteran is arguably the form scrum-half in Britain and Ireland. The 34-year-old has been imperious as his club have surged into Premiership title contention and he has just been named the league’s player of the month — an accolade which last came his way 13 years ago.

His performances have drawn suggestions that, despite no longer playing for England, he should be a contender for Warren Gatland’s squad to tour South Africa this summer. Care feels uneasy talking about the sudden clamour but flattered too.

Danny Care is playing with the carefree attitude that has propelled him into Lions contention

The scrum-half, 34, has played a starring role in Harlequins' Premiership chase this season

The scrum-half, 34, has played a starring role in Harlequins' Premiership chase this season

The scrum-half, 34, has played a starring role in Harlequins’ Premiership chase this season

‘It has been really nice to hear people throw my name into contention for the Lions,’ he says. ‘I’ve not been part of it before and I know how special it is, so to be talked about in that mix is amazing, but I don’t know if the coaches are talking about me at all.

‘I didn’t play in the Six Nations so it is going to be very tough to force a hand there, but I’m desperate to play as well as I can for Quins and, if someone in the Lions likes what they see, then it would be a dream come true.’

There. Elephant tackled.

Talking to Care, the irony that soon becomes apparent is that he is producing international-class rugby partly because he is not being forensically assessed as a potential international player. He last represented his country in November 2018 and has the liberated look of a man not striving to prove himself as a Test player.

So, is it fitting to say there is a sense of fun about his game now? ‘Yeah, massively,’ he says. ‘I haven’t got an England coach to worry about. I’m not thinking about wrong decisions and not getting picked for England.

‘That ship has sailed but it has probably given me the licence to back myself and enjoy it a lot more because there’s less pressure on me to perform.

‘I’ve got to perform for the coaches at Quins but I’m not being compared against every other scrum-half for a spot in the England team. I haven’t got a national coach breathing down my neck. I’ve not been in for three years now, so all I am trying to do is help Harlequins win. That is my goal.’

Care last played for England in 2018 but says the lack of pressure lets him play with freedom

Care last played for England in 2018 but says the lack of pressure lets him play with freedom

Care last played for England in 2018 but says the lack of pressure lets him play with freedom

That said, it is human nature to wonder about what might have been, or what might still be. Care is the stand-out scrum-half in the country so he still believes he could perform for his country, if he was needed, which is unlikely.

There is no lingering animosity towards Eddie Jones but he knows he has not been in the England coach’s thoughts for some time.

‘With the World Cup, he said I hadn’t played well enough to be selected,’ says Care. ‘Since then, the contact has been minimal but there’s no bad blood. He has gone down a different path. I’ve told him a few times, “I’m still here if you need me”, but he hasn’t needed me yet, so that has been a one-way conversation!

‘I would like to think if there was a Six Nations coming up next week, my name would be in the mix. But you would have to ask Eddie. All I am concentrating on is Quins. I would love to get top four and the chance to win some silverware. It has been a long time since we have done that.’

The 34-year-old was awarded Player of the Month last month and is the in-form scrum-half

The 34-year-old was awarded Player of the Month last month and is the in-form scrum-half

The 34-year-old was awarded Player of the Month last month and is the in-form scrum-half

The club’s resurgence this season, since the departure of Paul Gustard from the director of rugby role, has been startling. Care has been at the heart of it but he has certainly not been alone. Two Quins rookies have also been at the vanguard of the rise into play-off contention.

One of those is Marcus Smith, the playmaker prodigy who caught the eye of Jones while still at school and is regarded as a certainty for a Test debut sooner rather than later. Care has no hesitation in banging the drum for his half-back partner, saying: ‘He keeps getting better and is so eager to learn. I cannot wait to see him in an England shirt. He is the 10 to take England on.

‘He has already played 100 games for Quins and is only 22. He has grown up massively and is a leader in our group already.

Care's scintillating form has unsurprisingly seen him linked with a call up to the Lions squad

Care's scintillating form has unsurprisingly seen him linked with a call up to the Lions squad

Care’s scintillating form has unsurprisingly seen him linked with a call up to the Lions squad

‘He was from day one when he shouted at me about a ball not being where he wanted it. I thought, “This kid has got a little bit”.’

The other young Quin pushing hard for an international call-up is No 8 Alex Dombrandt and Care added: ‘If there was a tournament this week, you’d hope he would be heavily in the conversation.

‘He’s another guy like Marcus who just gets better and better.

‘He really reminds me of Nick Easter with his skills set and the way he reads the game.

Eddie Jones last spoke to Care when he did not select him for the World Cup

Eddie Jones last spoke to Care when he did not select him for the World Cup

Warren Gatland will coach the Lions for their tour of South Africa

Warren Gatland will coach the Lions for their tour of South Africa

Warren Gatland (R) recently cast his eye over Quins while Care has not heard from England coach Eddie Jones (L) amid his great run of performances

‘He gives an eight or nine-out-of-10 performance every week. He’s brilliant to play with and we link up well. He has sorted me out with a couple of tries and says I owe him a couple back!’

When Worcester visit The Stoop tonight, they will be wary of Smith’s creative class, the rampaging, off-loading threat posed by Dombrandt and also the unburdened ringmaster in between those two young aces.

Carefree Danny’s liberation has ignited Quins and could turn him into a Lion.

Care is enjoying mentoring younger players and is relaxed about what the future holds for him

Care is enjoying mentoring younger players and is relaxed about what the future holds for him

Care is enjoying mentoring younger players and is relaxed about what the future holds for him