Unlikely hero Powell leads Quins to the top

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The Independent Online

If there is one thing more surprising than Harlequins winning their first three games and sitting on top of Super League, it is that they have done so under an unknown 30-year-old coach who never played the game professionally.

Rob Powell took over at the competition's London outpost this winter, when Brian McDermott left for Leeds. Although he was a highly regarded assistant, it was not the appointment that many people expected. "They spoke to quite a few high-profile ex-professionals," Powell says. "But a number of players went to David Hughes and gave me their support."

Hughes, the owner of the club, listened and decided that he agreed with them. Powell's elevation completes a most unusual rugby league story. "I grew up supporting the Sheffield Eagles, but in those days there weren't many opportunities to play rugby league in Sheffield, so I played football and rugby union."

It wasn't until he started a masters degree in Newcastle that he gravitated seriously towards the game by coaching the Newcastle University team. A secondment in London led to an RL development job, which he combined with coaching the South London Storm. So far, so far from the mainstream.

Powell got the call from McDermott in 2007, after his original choice as assistant pulled out. They have been difficult times for Quins since, with a strong feeling that only McDermott's gritty philosophy and dominant personality held it all together. So, when he decamped, amid genuine fears for Quins' survival, they were widely expected to fall apart. Instead, they have won their first three games, beating the Catalans, Crusaders and, most astonishing of all, Leeds at Headingley last week.

Powell is not quite as surprised as everyone else. "We certainly didn't say we were going to win our first three games and be top, but we would have been disappointed if we hadn't started well," he says. "We had a really strong pre-season and we haven't had any injuries."

Tonight, they face Huddersfield. "We'll have to keep control against such a big, strong side, or it could be a very long night."

Powell hopes Quins' early form will attract more fans to The Stoop, but Friday night live on Sky makes that a hard sell. "But the players deserve more people there, because they've played some outstanding stuff," Powell says.

His loyalty to his players means that so far he prefers to select those who battled through the uncertainties of winter, rather than apparently better-qualified loan signings. "It doesn't matter who you are," he says. "You don't get into the team without out-training or outplaying someone."

* Warrington are to expand the capacity of their Halliwell Jones Stadium by 2,000. The Hull scrum-half Sean Long will be out for another two weeks with an Achilles tendon injury.