Best's broader vision

European Cup: England's leading club expands horizons to join in the continental movement towards a universal game; Stephen Brenkley finds passing today's French test is the key to Harlequins' season
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The Independent Online
In the case of Harlequins the critics have been unanimous. The superlatives being attached to their incisive, cavalier style of rugby have been - unlike the players naturally - falling over each other.

If the club were to imitate theatres and put extracts from the notices of their performances outside the Stoop the place would be littered with admiring descriptions. It would be impossible to walk a few feet without coming across "entertaining" and this would pale into insignificance alongside "rampant," "exhilarating" and "sumptuous."

Harlequins have been all of those things this season, often at one and the same time. Their record will undergo its severest examination so far in Brive, central France, today in the Heineken Cup against last year's runners-up in the French championship final. As has happened so frequently before, albeit in other sporting spheres, the true quality of England's leading team will be tested only by going into Europe. And it is in Europe that clubs are desperate to triumph, something Wasps and Bath have so far failed to do.

The Heineken competition (in only its second season, its first with English participation) may still have teething troubles. Crowds at matches in England have been sparse, the profile and significance of the event have both suffered from the lack of TV coverage in this country, this season's format was changed after the initial rules had been established with the result that the date and place of the final have still to be resolved. But Europe, runs the feeling, certainly at Harlequins, is where the future lies, so it is vital to make inroads there now.

"Brive are obviously extremely talented," Dick Best, the club's director of rugby, said. "We have watched them in several matches and had an enormous number of videos sent over of their performances by our spies in France. We will be as prepared as possible but we don't envisage an easy game. It will be testing and we want to to be tested."

This has not happened much so far this season. Harlequins have won all six of their domestic Courage League games, being stretched to any extent only in one, and both their previous Heineken ties, in Ulster where they were pushed most of the way and at home against Neath last weekend where they weren't pushed for any of it.

Today's match will almost certainly decide - Best is sure of it - who finishes first and second in Pool C of the competition. Victory will give the leading club a home tie in the quarter finals next month. This is not to be underestimated. Rugby players are still not accustomed to travelling long distances to matches and the European Rugby Cup, the tournament organisers, pay each club for only two nights' accommodation.

"It certainly isn't ideal and getting to Brive isn't easy at all," Best said. "There are no excuses but there are probably better ways to prepare than travelling by plane and then coach the day before the match. Soccer clubs don't tend to do it that way."

However it goes today, Harlequins will not betray their exciting principles. The professional game has merely seen them expand, with more resounding success, a method they used down most of the years when they were amateurs. Thus, the 15-man game continues and Best emphasised that they are committed to it. There will be one key positional change for the match. Will Carling, having been at outside-half for the past few weeks, will revert to centre, requiring Gary Connolly to switch to wing.

This probably won't matter. Carling should be more dangerous in his natural position, the magnificently percipient Connolly is dangerous anywhere. It is also likely that Carling will no longer have to undertake place- kicking duties, giving way to the more accomplished Paul Challinor (just in case 15-man rugby doesn't garner all the points required).

Best refused to be drawn on what mattered most in Harlequins' season, Courage or Heineken, ("we make our priority depending on what the next match is") but somehow gave the impression that he preferred the lager to the ale, like most good Europeans. "What we must avoid is doing what some of our soccer clubs have done in the past and falling between several stools."

A full house is guaranteed for today's clash, not least because European fever is already gripping France. Roger Pickering, ERC's tournament director, said he was not surprised by small crowds in England. In France, they were in the second season, they had the marketing right.

"For the pool stage I didn't expect anything else but I'll be disappointed if they don't improve for the knock-out stages," he said. Originally, the only knock-out stage was to have been the semi-finals but this was changed at the suggestion of broadcasters and sponsors. Pickering happily concedes this but said: "They don't control or organise the tournament, we do, but I think it is important to listen to the people who support you."

The final date will not be decided until after the quarter-finalists are decided at the earliest. By then Pickering also hopes to have an agreement for English television coverage in place, ITV having not taken up its option. "I can't say anything about it but I'm sure it will happen. And personally I'd like pool matches to be home and away next season. This is the future and we want English clubs to embrace it."

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