Gallagher revels in a rusty reunion

Rugby Union: Owen Slot at the Stoop sees a comeback capped with a late try
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The Independent Online
IN HIS last life as a rugby union player, John Gallagher was one of the finest of his kind and the world queued up to see him play. His reincarnation, in Harlequins' 74-22 victory over Rosslyn Park at the Stoop yesterday, was something of a modest affair.

The main stand was decently filled, a light smattering populated the other side of the park, and almost as many were involved in the song and dance in the middle. It is worth remembering that when Jonathan Davies made a similar comeback from league to union, the red carpet went down, the television cameras blinked in amazement and so did most of Wales before they thought about it seriously and decided that maybe he was a bit slow after all.

There was no such chance to gauge whether Gallagher, the All Black who has spent five years trying and failing to make it in rugby league, could once again be brilliant. All that could be gleaned was that he must have been damned cold out there wondering if the ball was ever going to come his way. He did take his first two up-and-unders perfectly well, but they were in the warm-up. Once the game started, he was rarely tested, though he will not be happy that he appeared to hold and then drop behind him the first high ball that eventually came to him.

"I was very pleased to get through the game without injury," he said afterwards. "But I was pretty rusty. It'll take three or four games to get back in form." And in that time, what parts of his game would he hope to improve? "Everything," he said, including his place-kicking, which was rather impressive, six out of 11 conversions going over.

"As Davies found," agreed Dick Best the Harlequins director of rugby, "it's not that easy to step back into the groove. The game is not as regimented as rugby league, therefore you've got to pick up the body language. I think he'll need a month."

Gallagher's return yesterday was not, of course, as ground-breaking as that of Davies. Gallagher has sort of had a go anyway: the candy-floss affair in Wales that was Ieuan Evans's tribute match and a sevens tournament in New York. His comeback yesterday was remarkable really because it marked a rare turnabout by the RFU in that he and nine other ex-rugby league players had been allowed back. Some might call it a shame that the RFU would only allow a player of such standing to play friendlies; Gallagher was delighted. "I just wanted to get some games under my belt. It's been frustrating, but I was expecting to have to wait until next season. It was a good decision by the RFU."

At Harlequins, they are pleased to have him, whatever the deal. Best has long demanded Gallagher's return, and after it he confidently predicted that his new man would be playing at centre for Ireland - his parents' Irish blood qualifies him - in the Five Nations' Championship. This is clearly a possibility, as the presence of an Ireland selector at the game suggested.

Gallagher was not so sure. "He's a lot more optimistic than I am," he said, preferring to dwell on a slice of the action 10 minutes from the end. Well inside his own half, he had burst on to a pass and made straight for the line. Tim Smithers, the Rosslyn Park scrum-half, gave chase and gradually made up the ground to bring him down. Momentum carried Gallagher over the line and the try was his. So there is life in the old boy yet.