French fall foul of air-brained scheme

Harlequins 45 Bourgoin 7
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The Independent Online
It is perversely reassuring to know that even in an age of mushrooming professionalism, an elite club with a track record of tangible success and perfectly legitimate designs on European glory can still get it spectacularly, embarrassingly wrong. The Bourgoin management made such a pig's ear of their high-profile Heineken Cup visit to Harlequins that they contrived to make Captain Mainwaring and Corporal Jones look like Bill Gates and Richard Branson.

For some extraordinary reason, the Frenchmen decided to fly to London on Saturday morning rather than Friday evening, thereby leaving themselves wide open to the whims and fancies of Sod's Law. Sure enough, the flight from Lyon was delayed, a hold-up which forced the players to gulp down a ludicrously late lunch before engaging in an even more ridiculously inadequate warm-up.

At least the Quins resident DJ knew his onions; he played the theme tune to Mission Impossible as Marc Cecillon led his irritated club-mates - already "dog tired" according to the harrassed Bourgoin coach, Michel Couturas - into a battle from which they had next to no chance of emerging in one piece.

"We won't be making the same mistakes again," muttered Couturas after watching his side leak four tries to an adventurous, disciplined and, dare we say it, passionate Quins outfit in which the main men - Keith Wood, Jason Leonard, Laurent Cabannes, Thierry Lacroix and Will Carling - shone like beacons. "This experience has taught us a lesson. Never again will we get up at the crack of dawn to fly to England for a game on the same afternoon. You ask me if we can take anything positive from this match. There were no positives. None at all."

All of which failed to cut even the tiniest splinter of ice with Andy Keast, the Quins coach who had boldly promised some zip and zap from his notoriously fragile charges and delivered in spades. "I don't think travelling has much to do with anything," he said. "It's easy to make excuses in defeat - we all do it - but in my book, that was a great Quins performance, one of the very best I've seen since I've been involved here. The players deserve every ounce of the credit they receive."

If Keast relished the efforts of his charges at the Stoop, two fellow coaches must have wondered what on earth they were watching. Jean-Claude Skrela and Pierre Villepreux, the classy double act at the helm of the French national side, crossed the Channel to observe the Bourgoin wannabes set out their stall in an unfamiliar environment but were instead treated to the sight of Cabannes launching a whole series of withering Quins handling attacks, often from the depths of his own 22, and a second golden Tricolore oldie, Lacroix, murdering the visitors with a metronomic display of goalkicking. An educated right boot? It probably has an honours degree from the Sorbonne.

A rum sort, Lacroix. The wily old stand-off spent much of last week venting his Gallic spleen in the general direction of his homeland, describing his countrymen as "small-minded" and suggesting that he would rather live under a hedge and flog the Big Issue for a living than renew permanent residence in France. Yet on Saturday, he declared himself available for Test rugby. All Messieurs Skrela and Villepreux had to do was pick up the phone, he said with an inscrutable grin that was either serenely hopeful or profoundly mischievous.

They are most unlikely to do so, but neither honoured guest could deny that this was Lacroix's match. He was helped no end by the Welsh referee, Nigel Whitehouse, who would have pulled up Bourgoin for wearing unacceptably loud shirts had the laws permitted it. But the goals still had to be kicked and kick them he did. Lacroix gave his side a 15-point lead by the end of the first quarter - two of his penalties were of the falling-off-a- log variety but the other three were much more awkward - and his prompting and probing in open play was every bit as authoritative.

If Bourgoin competed anywhere it was in the set-piece, where Laurent Gomez and the 6ft 1in New Zealander, David Morgan, applied some heavy- duty muscle. But Wood and Leonard soaked up the pressure, returned it with interest and then imposed themselves far more effectively in the dark underworld of the rucks and mauls.

Wood was sensational - he tackled, handled, passed, kicked, encouraged his clubmates, infuriated his opponents and rubbed it in at the death with a try in the left corner. As Leonard pointed out afterwards: "He could play anywhere, do anything. There aren't many like Woody."

More by luck than judgement, Julien Frier gave the visitors a chink of light by cantering over for the oddest of tap-penalty tries two minutes short of the half-hour, but the Bourgoin forward effort was already showing signs of temperamental wear and tear. Cecillon, a great bear of a man, decided that Leonard was "due some" but the record-breaking England prop refused to yield an inch under the flurry of fists. It was a dispiriting moment for Bourgoin and by the end of the half, Jamie Williams and Johnny Ngauamo had crossed for tries to leave the more legitimate business done and dusted.

All Quins now need to find are a degree of consistency and a crowd to watch them exercise it. The first may not be too much of a problem, but the second? Saturday's attendance was pathetic - a couple of thousand, three perhaps - and as any accountant will testify, full hospitality boxes are no substitute for full terraces.

Scorers: Harlequins: Tries: Ngauamo 2, Williams, Wood; Conversions: Lacroix 2; Penalties: Lacroix 7. Bourgoin: Try: Frier; Conversion: Favre.

Harlequins: J Williams; D O'Leary, W Carling (S Power, 68), J Ngauamo, L Belligoi (R Liley, 62); T Lacroix, H Harries; M Cuttitta, K Wood (capt, rep P Delaney, 77), J Leonard, Gareth Llewellyn (G Allison, 68), L Gross, R Jenkins, W Davison, L Cabannes.

Bourgoin: N Geany; L Leflamand, G Cassagne (D Janin, 62), S Glas, Y Bohu; P Favre (A Peclier, 53), D Mazille; L Gomez (O Milloud, 53), J-F Martin- Culet, D Morgan, J Daude, M Cecillon (capt, F Nibelle, 53), J Frier (F Grange, 53), P Raschi, M Malafosse.

Referee: N Whitehouse (Wales).