Andrew adjusts focus

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Rob Andrew for England? David Campese for Newcastle? Campo for Harlequins? In the current tumult that is affecting and afflicting English rugby nothing much is certain, still less sacred, beyond such obvious things as the superiority of Harlequins over Newcastle.

That third in the First Division should beat bottom of the Second by a substantial 44-22 was sufficiently predictable to be almost the least interesting point about an attractive but ultimately unsurprising Pilkington Cup fifth-round tie at Kingston Park. Next, Quins must play at Leicester in the quarter-final on 24 February.

With equal predictability, Dick Best, Quins' director of rugby, then adopted his sulphuric persona to give a negative evaluation of his own side's performance and have yet another swipe at England's selection and management. "I can't think what we did well apart from O'Leary scoring tries," he moaned.

As O'Leary, Daren of that ilk, had just become the first player to score five in a match in the cup's 26 seasons, this was a more significant positive than one player doing well, but Best has never been one to over-inflate his players' egos, not even when they have scored seven tries to one.

The rationale behind this reluctance was that Quins had made too heavy weather of subduing opponents who consisted of Rob Andrew and 14 others. Willing assistants though the 14 were, the weight of responsibility bearing down on the admirable Andrew - to score the points, dictate the strategy, direct the tactics, everything - was palpable.

Best, among many others, believes England should take a step back in order to take two forward by reselecting Andrew at outside-half, even though he is almost 33 and this was his first competitive game of rugby since his indignant departure from Wasps four months ago. As Best and Jack Rowell, the England manager, are profoundly antipathetic since Rowell sacked Best as England coach, one imagines Best's recommendation is likely to make Rowell less, rather than more, likely to make the call.

In any case if Andrew is to be believed, the debate is an irrelevance, at least for the time being. "Maybe I won't get the call," he said. "It's very, very flattering but, as I've said on many occasions, I made a decision to retire from international rugby. I have a lot of work to do here and that's where my focus is at the moment."

At the moment? Well, Andrew's contract, worth around pounds 150,000 per annum, covers five years and if his chairman Sir John Hall - who looked in at Kingston Park but had other, more pressing business at Middlesbrough - wants full value for his money he will keep Andrew here, where he now belongs. Never mind England, Andrew has other priorities in his working life, Newcastle's Second Division fixture against Blackheath next Saturday being the first and so important as to keep him out of the commentary box when Wales play Scotland in Cardiff.

On Saturday there was much to admire in the plucky resourcefulness with which Newcastle, enlivened by Andrew, recovered smartly from the setback of Will Greenwood's early try for Harlequins and the resolute forward performance which kept them competitive for an hour. However, for Iain McLennan specifically it was all precipitously downhill after the summit of his try, and for Newcastle collectively exhaustion was to set in so severely that in the end O'Leary was able to run past the hapless McLennan at will.

As this took place in the presence of the England selector Mike Slemen, himself once a wing of great distinction, this should have returned O'Leary to the representative pecking-order. And if it has not, he may soon opt for Ireland, the land of his father. "He is as good as any wing in the First Division," Slemen said.

Is it not curious then that England, self-admittedly short of wings of quality, should neglect him? He is only 22 and five tries at Newcastle took him to 17 this season. "I don't know where he stands," Best said. "I don't know if any winger in the country does, or any other player." He would say that, wouldn't he, but when Slemen says one thing and the selectors so obviously do another Best appears to have a point.

Not that Best's mind is these days entirely on either cup, in which Quins have a good reputation, or league, in which they have a bad reputation. Scarcely a day goes by without someone - think of a name, any name - being linked with Quins as professional rugby's nascent transfer market builds up. Wasps, who had Gareth Llewellyn's signature, have been gazumped by Quins. Robert Jones is set to follow; so may Arwel Thomas.

Please note, not an Englishman among them. Campese, an Australian, is another, though Andrew fancies his chances enough to "have a chat" with the fading magician when Newcastle play New South Wales tomorrow. The trouble for Andrew is that, whereas he used to be the market-maker, the money that is swirling around since the takeovers of Northampton, Saracens and Richmond is making the demand-driven competition ever-more ferocious.

Andrew's role as recruiter-in-chief - Popplewell and Walton played on Saturday; Tony Underwood, Childs, Ryan, Armstrong and Weir will follow presently - has now transferred to Best, courtesy of the sponsorship that will next season see the club officially styled "NEC Harlequins ... of London". That is a very lucrative mouthful.

"We were the first to make this move into professionalism," Andrew said. "A lot of other clubs are following us. Nobody knows where it's going. Clubs come in with new backers and suddenly the market has moved." If all the players with pounds s in their eyes like something out of a Tom and Jerty cartoon had not been aware that professionalism would turn them into commodities to be bought and sold, they do now.

Newcastle: Try McLennan; Conversion Andrew; Penalties Andrew 5. Harlequins: Tries O'Leary 5, Greenwood, Mensah; Conversions Challinor 3; Penalty Challinor.

Newcastle: P Belgian; M Wilson, J Fletcher, R Cramb, I McLennan; R Andrew (capt), G Robson; N Popplewell, N Frankland, P Van-Zandvliet, F Mitchell, R Metcalfe, P Walton, R Arnold, S Cassidy.

Harlequins: J Staples; D O'Leary, W Greenwood, P Mensah, S Bromley; P Challinor, R Kitchin; J Leonard (capt), S Mitchell, A Mullins, M Russell, M Watson, G Allison, C Sheasby, R Jenkins.

Referee: E Morrison (Bristol).

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