Harlequins turn Japanese in rugby revolution

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The Independent Online
STEVE BALE

Harlequins are blessed with one of the most evocative names in rugby, but what's in a name? The Quins yesterday entered into a three-year corporate partnership with NEC, the Japanese electronics giant, worth around pounds 1.5m which from next season will rechristen them, as their publicity blurb puts it, "NEC Harlequins . . . of London".

Sports editors, on the other hand, may take some persuading. The coming of professionalism had already shown that nothing was sacrosanct, so perhaps we should not be surprised that the Harlequin Football Club was prepared to adulterate the title that had served with distinction for 130 years - 31 years longer than NEC.

But this is the price of progress, as several other sporting institutions have discovered. Instead of the plain old FA Cup, we now have "The FA Cup, sponsored by Littlewoods" and the home of Test cricket in south London is "The Foster's Oval".

NEC's money will go a considerable way towards funding the player contracts that are being drawn up ready for the end of the rugby football union's moratorium in May, leaving Roger Looker, the club chairman, to suggest Quins would be "highly competitive in the terms that will be offered to our players". More in keeping with Harlequin tradition, yesterday's announcement took place at the Savoy Hotel, in London, with a goodly turn-out of players - though not the England captain Will Carling - present to hear the personally felicitous news.

Quins' partnership with NEC coincides with plans for a new 4,200-seater east stand at the Stoop Memorial Ground for which consent has been granted by Richmond council. Work on the pounds 4m project is due to start at the end of this season, with the seating in place for next season and work completed by the end of the year.

NEC's support, designed so that Harlequins are not bought out as other clubs have been, also incorporates a youth development programme initially based in London and taking in the sports scholarships the club is inaugurating at the University of Surrey. Quins intend that this is developed on a national basis.

"At this time of considerable change in the game, we have reviewed our financial position in detail and will be introducing a number of major initiatives in the coming months," Mr Looker said. Among the initiatives are the NEC-Harlequins cheerleaders; Adrian Stoop must be turning in his grave, if only to get a better view.

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