Though there are many rugby union clubs the world over, few have managed to attain the kind of success or even have a name that is as recognizable as Harlequins FC has. The south-west London-based outfit has been the example of consistency for over a century and a half amassing numerous accolades and a reputation that precedes them. Fueling their many achievements has been the many top players who have filled their ranks over the years, a number of whom are considered to be among the best to do it. These players have not only defined their eras for both club and country but also made significant contributions to the growth, development, and popularity of the sport into the global phenomenon that is loved, followed, and played by so many.
Who are the greatest Harlequins players of all time? The greatest Harlequins players of all time include former England national rugby union team captains Chris Robshaw and Will Carling, former president of the RFU Jason Leonard and fellow 2003 Rugby World Cup winner Will Greenwood, former wing Ugo Monye, former star fly-half Nick Evans, ex-fullback Mike Brown, former hooker Brian Moore, former number 8 Nick Easter, and former lock forward Paul Ackford.
Harlequins was founded as the Hampstead Football Club in 1866 with its first documented game taking place the following year. The club is one of the oldest in the history of organized sports having been founded around three years after the Football Association (FA). It also predates the Rugby Football Union (RFU) by half a decade.
The initial outfit did not long as a rift between senior management caused the club to split into two in 1867 with one going on to form top-flight side Wasps and the other remaining and later rebranding into Harlequin Rugby Football Club in 1870.
The club initially did not have a home ground until they moved to a then-new stadium at Twickenham in 1906 upon the invitation of the RFU since only a few matches were played at the venue every year. Harlequins subsequently acquired a 14-acre property across the road where they built their 14000+ capacity home ground commonly known as The Stoop in 1963.
Harlequins has been a mainstay in England’s top flight for almost all of their existence with the exception of a short stint in the second-tier National Division One in the mid-2000s. The club currently holds the world record for providing the greatest number of players for a Rugby World Cup final with eight.
Defining Eras & Accomplishments
Like most professional clubs, Harlequins’ engagements prior to the 1960s are scarcely documented. The Premiership Rugby powerhouses have however been active on both the domestic and international scene since.
The early 1960s saw the club tour East Africa (Kenya and Uganda) and South Africa to play several matches including tests against namesakes Kenya Harlequin F.C. and Pretoria Harlequins. As the names suggest, both the clubs mentioned above are affiliates of the London-based club and have permission to use Harlequin colors and badges as part of their kits.
Due to the rugby union’s reluctance to adopt professionalism, most top English clubs like Harlequins first had consistent competitions from 1987 onwards. The English side did not waste any time winning its first major honor – the John Player Cup – the very next year.
The juggernauts followed it up by clinching the RFU Knockout Cup successor, the Pilkington Cup, in 1991. The two trophies above were versions of the Anglo-Welsh Cup which Harlequins won a third time in 2013 (then called the LV Cup). The club also finished as runners-up on four different occasions.
Other notable trophies include the European Challenge Cup which the club has won thrice (2001, 2004, and 2011), the RFU Championship (2006), and perhaps their most prestigious honor – the Premiership Rugby title – in its 2011-12 and 2020-21 seasons.
The club has rivalries with a number of Premiership Rugby clubs, especially with former counterparts Wasps, who were in administration at the time of the writing of this article. The Quarters have also faced their fair share of adversity with arguably the most notable being their relegation to National Division One after finishing dead last in the Premiership (then called the Zurich Premiership.
The Quins nevertheless bounced back winning all but one of their National Division One matches in their 2005-06 campaign to book their ticket back to the top flight with four matches to spare and averaging 25 points a match.
Though many players have donned the multi-colored Harlequins shirts, these players stand out for their contributions to the club.
- Chris Robshaw – the former flanker is arguably one of the most famous Harlequins players ever. The two-time Aviva Premiership Player of the Year winner spent 15 years with the club scoring 120 points in 288 appearances.
- Will Carling – the former center spent 13 years with the Harlequins and holds the distinction of being the youngest-ever Red and Whites captain having been handed the armband at only 22.
- Jason Leonard – the ex-prop not only spent 14 years with the Harlequins for which he made 290 appearances for the club but is also a Rugby World Cup winner (2003) and one of the most capped English players (114).
- Will Greenwood – the former center joined the Harlequins in the latter years of his career but still managed to make an impact by notching up 135 points in 82 appearances.
- Ugo Monye – an ever-intimidating presence, the former wing spent his entire club career at the club and was a key contributor in their golden years with an impressive 435 points in 241 appearances.
- Nick Evans – the ultra-talented fly-half/fullback played 9 solid years for the Harlequins registering 2,249 points in 208 appearances. The New Zealander is currently a coach at the club and was one of the best-paid players with an annual salary rumored to be in the neighborhood of £320,000.
- Mike Brown – the fullback spent 14 years at the club before his abrupt exit in 2021. He is Harlequins’ record appearance holder (351) and the only active player on this list as of November 2022.
- Brian Moore – the former hooker spent five years at the club while also training to become a solicitor. The 1991 Rugby World Player of the Year was also a key contributor for England from the late 1980s to the mid- 1990s, won three Grand Slams (1991,1992, and 1995), and participated in three World Cups including their heartbreaking 1991 finals loss to Australia.
- Nick Easter – the crafty number 8 spent 12 years at The Stoop making 281 appearances and registering 265 points.
- Paul Ackford – the former lock forward is a man of many hats having worked as an inspector in the Metropolitan police and currently contributing to the sport as a respected columnist for a leading news outlet. The 1991 Five Nations Grand Slam winner was a key contributor to the Will Carling era.
Aside from the players listed above. A few more players deserve recognition for their contributions to the club. They include former England trio Mickey Skinner (flanker), Simon Halliday (center/wing), and Peter Winterbottom (flanker), who were part of the Red and Whites squad for the 1991 Rugby World Cup that made it to the final.
Former Wallabies ace Troy Cooker also deserves a mention as he was part of the Australian squad that battled England for the competition’s top prize – the Web Ellis trophy – and ultimately triumphed 12-6 at Harlequins’ former home, Twickenham Stadium, in front of over 50,000 adoring fans.