It is not Harlequins these days, but NEC Harlequins. The original assumption was that the initials stood, rather presump- tiously for New English Champions although the cynics have been suggesting that No English Characters might be more appropriate for a side drawn from every point of the compass.
Last night their hitherto unblemished challenge for the Courage League title could only be described as Not Entirely Convincing. In fact, they could hardly have been less persuasive as Sale, inspired from the front by the magnificent John Fowler and intelligently from full-back by Jim Mallinder, chased and badgered them to their first domestic defeat of the campaign.
For all their newly discovered backbone, Harlequins still look ill at ease in rough and tumble treks to the far-flung corners of the English rugby landscape. Things that invariably go swimmingly at The Stoop tend to go awry in less comfortable surroundings and when Robbie Paul snatched amateurishly at a scoring pass from Mike Corcoran early on, the Londoners must have feared the worst.
Although Corcoran opened the scoring with a penalty, the All Black outside- half, Simon Mannix, marked his league debut with two in reply and with Charlie Vyvyan and Dave Erskine rattling a few teeth in the loose exchanges, the city slickers were in considerable discomfort throughout the first half.
A pushover try from Nick Walshe, the scrum-half, on the half hour might have settled them down but it was his opposite number, the veteran Dewi Morris, who epitomised Sale's determination to make a decent fist of it just six minutes later. Morris caught Chris Wright, who had just replaced Walshe, with an all-enveloping tackle and the left wing Tom Beim would have scored on the kick through had Will Carling not made acres of ground in an outstanding piece of cover defence.
The respite for Quins was short-lived, however, for Dave Baldwin took a clean catch at the resulting line-out and slipped the ball to Morris for a try in the corner that put the home side 11-8 ahead at the break.
It went from bad to terrible in the second period. Mannix opened up an ominous gap with a beautifully struck third penalty five minutes into the half and with Fowler growing in influence by the second, Quins found it impossible to establish any sort of platform.
Morris was enjoying every minute of his Indian summer in the big time and said later: "My heart goes out to those forwards. I love it when they perform like that." He effectively tied things up by throwing Carling a one-handed dummy from the base of a close-range scrum and diving over for his second try on 59 minutes. When Vyvyan did something very similar deep in the final quarter, Gary Connolly's late score in the left corner was nothing more than an irrelevance.
Dick Best, Quins' director of rugby, said: "Everyone wants to beat us for various reasons and we have to come to terms with that fact."
Sale: Tries Morris 2, Vyvyan; Penalties Mannix 3. Harlequins: Tries Walshe, Connolly; Penalty Corcoran.
Sale: J Mallinder (capt); D Rees, J Baxendell, G Stocks, T Beim; S Mannix, D Morris (J O'Reilly, 66); P Smith, S Diamond, A Smith, J Fowler, D Baldwin, D Erskine, D O'Grady, C Vyvyan (A Morris, 77).
Harlequins: J Williams; M Corcoran, G Connolly, R Paul, D O'Leary; W Carling, N Walshe (C Wright, 34); J Leonard (capt), K Wood, L.Benezech, Gareth Llewellyn, Glyn Llewellyn, R Jenkins, B Davison, L Cabannes.
Referee: S Piercy (Yorkshire).Reuse content