Best seeks a cure for Harlequins' strange malaise

A defeat in their Pilkington Cup semi-final today could actually be a good result for the `glamour' club and their trio of England players. Steve Bale spoke to their coach
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Dick Best once called Harlequins "more prima donna than the Bolshoi Ballet" but though in some ways - love the cup, hate the league - nothing has changed, it is part of Quins' quandary that they now have not too many but too few prima donnas. Too much anonymity; too little star quality.

Thus when they play Bath, the holders, in today's Pilkington Cup semi- final, there will be only four internationals among the Harlequins as opposed to the 11, seven of them part of England's Grand Slam 21, who won the cup in 1991 during Best's earlier coaching stint at The Stoop.

But though with fewer quality players, the same questions are posed now as during the era when Skinner, Winterbottom, Ackford and the rest were wearing the multi-colours. How do these guys - "dilettantes" has a nice ring to it - continue to make their way through the cup rounds while playing like prats in the league?

"If only I could get to the bottom of it," Best said. "This business about being in London and all the distractions and the time it takes just to get to training and all the rest of it ... well, it doesn't seem to affect Wasps.

"So there is absolutely no reason why it should happen to us. We've always had this love affair with the cup as a one-off thing, winner takes all. It might be the glamour tag that is attached to it: whatever happens, the cup final is the biggest club game in England and since we first won it in 1988 it has always had this hold on the club."

The contrast this season is that Quins have not even done enough to secure mid-table safety but have been, and even after their excruciating one- point win over Northampton last Saturday remain, in peril of being lost to the First Division. Nunquam Dormio (I never sleep), the Harlequin motto, has lately been a downright lie.

"It seems to be endemic that people here find it very difficult to play 18 league games a season at fever pitch," Best said. "Jamie Salmon tried to change that by bringing in a lot of youngsters and players who weren't tarred with the Harlequin malaise, who are now patently not good enough to be playing in first-team rugby."

Mention of Salmon is a reminder that Best had the umbilical cord that had joined him to Quins as player and coach since 1974 severed when, having appointed him England coach after the 1991 World Cup, the Rugby Football Union insisted he cease his direct connection with Harlequins in 1992.

Best grudgingly did so and the club eventually appointed Salmon, a curiosity as a former centre for both New Zealand and England, as their first full- time director of rugby. Last year Jack Rowell dispensed with Best as England coach and in December, Salmon having joined Sky TV, the former coach returned - now doing it for the money as well as the love.

He did not appreciate (in either sense) what he was taking on. "We are in the process of rebuilding, and how we go about that is by trying to improve players' fitness, their understanding of the game and their skill. When I returned to this club all of these were at the lowest I have ever encountered since my first involvement with Harlequins more than 20 years ago.

"In addition, we've had a new coaching staff this season with everyone finding their feet, and an enormous amount of new players, endless injuries and the disruption caused by the absence of our internationals. When I arrived here in December I asked for a meeting with the fitness adviser and was told he was working in America, so I could see it was in slight disarray. Now we are whipping them into shape."

Best's reputation is such that he might even mean this last remark literally. He was dubbed "sulphuric" by a former captain because of the acerbic verbal accompaniment to his coaching, and when Peter Winterbottom was Quins' captain he dared to ask Best to moderate the spleen he vented on players in training.

But if ever a season has shown the need for more stick and less carrot it is this one. Last Saturday's win was Quins' first in the league since early October. No surprise, then, that they are such rank outsiders against Bath even though the champions have had travails of their own during the inconvenient months of the Five Nations' Championship.

These days, it seems, Quins are making their way in the cup despite themselves and would gladly accept an honourable semi-final exit if it assisted the fight against relegation. Indeed there are even some at the club who would privately admit that, however embarrassing, a Second Division season would be no bad thing if it forced everyone at The Stoop - but especially the players - to engage in some serious self-analysis.

Others may think that, but Best could not possibly say so. "I see a light at the end of the tunnel and it's not a vision; it's a candle light," he said mysteriously. "It comes down to player education. I found I had to start all over again, because the group of players as a whole is quite nave when it comes to lite sport and what is required.

"Lifestyle management to cope with the City and First Division rugby is a very difficult thing, especially here in the metropolis, but I actually believe we have the basis of a reasonable team. I was slightly disillusioned at one stage but now I feel progress is being made.

"If we can survive this season - and it's still a big if with a fairly horrendous run-in - next season I would hope to languish around the middle of the table and continue the love affair with the Pilkington, and probably the season after that we might just have developed a team to go through and win something."

This is faint praise compared with the days when Best said he knew Harlequins would not win the league until they had fewer men involved with England. That is the situation this season and, far from winning the league, they are in danger of dropping down it. Time for some instant philosophy from the Best man for the job: "I have known better times."