Keast unravels the Harlequins enigma

How a coach is restoring order at the Stoop after the upheavals of last spring
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The Independent Online
What is it with Harlequins, exactly? If the highest of high rollers are not quite the lowest of low achievers, their reputation as the weak- spirited enigmas of the English game has been earned a hundred times over. Talented they may be, but one good puff can still blow the Stoop Memorial Ground clean off its foundations. As one rugged Bath forward of fairly recent vintage put it: "Look at those shirts they ponce around in. Every colour under the sun except the one that sums them up. Yellow."

Quite how successful Andy Keast, Quins' new director of rugby and one of English coaching's brighter young things, will be in applying some backbone to all that soft tissue is one of the most intriguing aspects of the campaign. Ol' Square Eyes, as he is affectionately known after spending countless man hours compiling video analysis for the Lions during their summer trek through South Africa, has already seen his dissolute charges at their most indisciplined and the experience drove him back in front of the small screen this week for a merciless dissection of his side's half-baked performance against Munster in last Sunday's Heineken Cup opener.

"It's the only way," he sighs. "I came back from South Africa never wanting to watch a video again - I would go days, quite literally, without seeing some of the Lions because my time was divided between sleeping, eating and analysing - but it's important to confront players with their own shortcomings. We gave Munster 20-odd points in missed tackles and allowed the Irish pimple to become a rash, so I sat everyone down in front of the tape and we spent two and a half hours discussing it. If they didn't realise before that they'd let themselves down, they realise it now."

To rugby folk outside the leafy suburbs of south-west London, the Quins job is the most toxic of poisoned chalices. Many of the big names have egos to match, the swank city slicker image raises the hackles of hard- bitten provincials to such an altitude that they snort fire at the merest glimpse of Will Carling and the superb spectator facilities are too often betrayed by a lack of... well, spectators. To make matters worse from Keast's point of view, he inherited a workforce in open revolt. Player power had accounted for his predecessor and partner, the abrasive former England coach Dick Best, and speculation was rife that Jason Leonard, the king-pin international prop, had seen enough and was hot-footing it across the Thames to Saracens.

"Things happened, obviously," Keast agrees. "Look, I'm a good mate of Dick's and he had the right vision for the club and was moving it in the only realistic direction available in a professional sport. Some of the changes he wanted to introduce - daytime training, for instance - are now up and running. Quite honestly, I would liked to have continued working with him, but in the end I was asked to take on the job and, well, I've got a family to feed.

"As for Jason, he's going nowhere. We've had requests and there has been a lot of big-money transfer talk, but this is not just any old Quin we're talking about but a Quin through and through. I'm glad about it, too. I wouldn't like to coach a side that didn't have him there in the front row because he offers things in terms of knowledge and heart and enthusiasm that others couldn't hope to offer in a month of Sundays."

And Carling, the biggest cheese in the shop? How is Will these days? "I have to say that the guy has worked his butt off. Really, I just can't fault him. He was under a fair bit of pressure during all the upheaval at the club back in the spring, with people pointing the finger at him and things being written and said. But you wouldn't know that from watching him play. The old buzz is there and he looks after himself properly and professionally. He's a major asset to us, a key figure."

Keast is too modest to claim full credit, but he has presided over a sudden sea change at the Stoop. Rory Jenkins, Spencer Bromley and Gareth Allison, front-line players all, have put their City jobs on hold and signed up as bona fide full-timers. That leaves just two senior staff, Jim Staples and Alex Snow, on the part-time list - precisely the kind of professionalisation Best was seeking when he ran into such stern opposition towards the end of last season.

"No-one twisted any arms," Keast insists. "The decision to change came from the players themselves and now they are into this different cycle of life, they're loving every minute of it. It's the way things are going and, while it won't happen immediately, the long-term implications are that those who do not feel able to commit themselves on a full-time basis will be left behind."

Snow, a successful equities broker, is deeply unsettled at Quins and his departure would leave an awkward gap in the Stoop's second row stable, but Keast believes he has been more than accommodating towards the part- timers."I'm not interested in forcing the full-time issue on either Alex or Jim. The very last thing I want to see is players of their quality leaving this club and even if they make only one training session a week, they'll play the top games if they're performing better than anyone else. In the end, it's up to me to manage this squad with the right degree of flexibility."

Ah, the squad. Quite a melange, the Harlequins set-up: an environment in which upstanding Englishmen rub shoulders with sundry Celts, a quartet of tres sophisticated Frenchmen, a couple of Yanks, an Italian, a South Seas islander and a Turkish-Cypriot. Keast relishes the man management challenge that lies at the heart of his quest for a trophy this season.

"It's not easy, but I find the management side of things fascinating, incredibly rewarding. Look at the range of people involved: a real life legend like Will, a new Frenchman who barely speaks the lingo and a Tongan complete with wife and kids, not to mention youngsters like Nick Walshe, who is still very much in his shell and needs bringing out. A big job, definitely.

"For that very reason, I treasure the Lions experience. It was, in effect, a crash course in professionalism because if the tour was to stand any chance of success, it was essential to observe the very different people involved and at least try to understand their personalities. The situation here is just the same and that means pressure, but hell, this used to be a hobby and now I'm being paid. I consider myself very fortunate."

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