Rugby Union: Brooke determined to upset Geordie applecart

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The Independent Online
PERVERSE game, rugby. Harlequins have spent the last eight and a half months as a side issue, an optional extra, the Allied Dunbar Premiership's equivalent of Shakespeare's third spear carrier. Very occasional good days - Heineken Cup wins in Bourgoin and Cardiff and a 50-point league victory over Wasps - have been eclipsed by cock-ups against Bristol and London Irish. They are the Charles Hawtreys of the English game; sometimes inspired, but desperately fragile.

Yet the Londoners have it in their power to deny the mean machine from Newcastle their ultimate prize at a sell-out Stoop Memorial Ground tomorrow and rumour has it that they are deadly serious about upsetting the Geordie apple-cart. Certainly, Zinzan Brooke, the All Black legend who took possession of the Harlequins poisoned chalice a couple of months ago, made an early motivational pitch yesterday.

"The players need to show the right attitude, plenty of commitment and stop talking about where they are going for their summer holidays," said the new coach. For those in need of a rough translation, he meant: "Front up, or you'll all be on one long holiday." As Brooke knows from his rich experience of the New Zealand dressing-room, the threat of a week's notice tends to have a cathartic effect on a slovenly workforce.

On the face of it, the Geordies possess more than enough know-how to chisel out the single point they require to repel Saracens' compelling stab at the double. Their form has been none too impressive since back- to-back reverses in the capital last month, but they successfully picked a route through the intensely physical ambushes laid by Leicester and Bath, and as Rob Andrew, their director of rugby, said yesterday: "Another nightmare in London is not on the agenda."

Andrew is on edge, though. He knows Harlequins of old and is suspicious of their capricious, fly-by-night habits. Newcastle have been mightily effective all season, but their all-round pace is suspect. Harlequins are the quickest side in England. Jamie Williams, Dan Luger, Daren O'Leary, even Laurent Cabannes, are as fast as you like and positively lethal in open field.

To make matters nervier still, Newcastle go in without Dean Ryan, their No 8, captain and enforcer-in-chief. Ryan was so comprehensively concussed in last Monday's bone-splintering collision with Bath that he disappeared with the fairies - it took a phalanx of medics with first-hand knowledge of the martial arts to dissuade him from returning to the pitch - and although Peter Walton has performed influentially of late, the main man will be sorely missed.

Down in the Premiership basement, Bristol and London Irish are feeling every bit as neurotic. Bristol go into tomorrow afternoon's opening play- off leg at London Scottish without their sole England tourist, Josh Lewsey and, judging by the wails of anguish at the Memorial Ground yesterday, they are none too pleased with their boy wonder. Listed to start on the bench, the 21-year-old back decided to give the game a wide berth in order to concentrate on his physiology studies.

"I've given everything to rugby for the last two years and when I put last season's play-offs before my academic commitments, I did very badly in my exams," he explained. Bristol's claim that he is in contravention of his contract will not cost him too much sleep; Lewsey has been unsettled for months and intends to move clubs at the end of the season. Sale are favourites for his signature.

London Irish, meanwhile, field a shadow side against Leicester at Sunbury tomorrow; their big guns are saving themselves for the might of Rotherham, whom they confront in the first leg of a play-off in Yorkshire on Wednesday night. Gabriel Fulcher, the Irish international second row squeezed out of the Exiles' first-choice line-up by Nick Harvey and Malcolm O'Kelly, captains the also-rans.

In Wales, Swansea require one point from tonight's game at Pontypridd to deny Cardiff's late surge and claim the Premiership title. The All Whites can even afford to lose, provided they score three tries and collect the requisite bonus.