Rugby Union: A hard edge for the soft touches

England's perennial under-achievers have turned to one of the game's greatest players for salvation.
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The Independent Online
THEIR MOTTO is numquam dormio and if the Harlequins never slept it had less to do with eternal vigilance, more with possessing honorary membership to the more fashionable West End night-spots. The club's association with the Big Smoke, burnt into their colourful history since 1866, has made them the team everybody loves to hate.

Zinzan Brooke does not lose any sleep over it. Zinzan is the great Maori who has swapped the All Black of New Zealand for the light blue, magenta, French grey, chocolate brown, black, and light green of the Harlequins. Only the Quins could have a jersey that incorporates magenta, French grey and chocolate brown. To opponents it's a red rag.

"I was in the same situation in Auckland," Zinzan said. "I was the country lad moving to the big city team and everybody hated it. I played for Auckland for 12 years and all anybody wanted to do was to kick the shit out of us. It's no different to the Quins. You have to use it to your advantage, thrive on it. Quins will always be stuck with this city slickers thing."

They also have a reputation for under-achieving. Last season the NEC Harlequins, as they are officially called in deference to their Japanese sponsors, won eight league matches, lost 14 and were not far away from the relegation play-offs. They were on a pounds 1,000 win bonus a match but it didn't show. They conceded 647 points, 62 of them in a humiliating collapse to London Irish in April. That day, bright crimson and craven yellow might have been added to the Quins spectrum.

Not only was it a record defeat but to make matters worse the Irish were coached by Dick Best, who had not long been sacked by Quins. It was Best who was responsible for bringing Brooke to London, signing him as a player after the No 8 had appeared in 100 games for the All Blacks, the last of them the epic draw against England at Twickenham last year. As he was still contracted to the NZRU, Brooke was prevented from playing for Quins last season but after Best's departure, he had a hand in coaching the forwards. With Andy Keast, Best's successor, also leaving the Stoop, Brooke, who is said to be on pounds 200,000, has been appointed player-coach and captain.

One of his first moves was to take Will Carling out to lunch. Carling, Quins' most capped player with 72 appearances for England, left the Stoop in wretched fashion. Keast thought the former England captain was spending too much time on business and not enough on the training field and with Carling's name featuring less and less on the team sheet, a glittering career simply petered out. Brooke wants him back. "Will has been such an important part of Quins rugby and I'd like to utilise his experience. He says he's retired but I haven't finished talking to him yet."

Given overall control, Zinzan has brought in John Gallagher, a Londoner who played full-back for the All Blacks when they won the inaugural World Cup in 1987; the Australian Adrian Skeggs, a mountainous prop who has coached forwards in New South Wales and Natal, and Bernie McCahill, the former All Black and Auckland centre, who will coach the backs.

"I don't have to worry about other agendas," Zinzan said. "I trust them all. The first thing to do was get the management structure right." The players, who were reckoned to have a say in the departures of Best and Keast, are aware of a different philosophy. Zinzan oversaw that debacle against the Irish. "Nothing was said. It was too late in the season to change the mindset. I wanted them to hurt. It's a pride thing. I'd watched Quins in training and one of the things that stood out was how much the coaches were on the backs of the players telling them what to do. Run this way, run that way, do this, do that. They had become brain dead. You've got to let the players think for themselves and react to situations. The patterns of a game change all the time and instead of reacting to what was happening in front of them they were looking for the coach behind them. You need thinkers. I'll help as far as leadership is concerned but I'm not going to stand up waving a flag saying 'follow me'. There's only so much I can do. It's not going to happen for Quins just because I've turned up.

"It doesn't work like that. They're going to have to dog it out. I want 15 guys who are good at their job, thinking about rugby. They have their own responsibilities. That's far better than listening to me all the time. I wouldn't question a guy who does something on his own initiative as long as it's for the benefit of the team. Rugby hasn't changed that much."

On Saturday, when they travel to Leicester, Zinzan will have a better idea of whether he can change the definitive image of the Harlequin - a lively, unpredictable character associated with commedia dell'arte who wore a multi-coloured costume. Not many of those on the Maori landscape. Brooke has signed, amongst others, the Australian lock Garrick Morgan, the Western Samoan John Schuster, the New Zealander Vaughan Going and the Irishman Gary Halpin.

"I'd never met Zinzan before and although he's achieved so much, he's just one of the guys," said Halpin, who has joined from London Irish. "He's very unassuming. He doesn't want you to look up to him. He's a peer and he doesn't pontificate. Some communicate to the point of being ineffective. We've been given a lot of personal responsibility. In the past Quins had characters who were untouchable and I'm not talking about Carling."

The tight five will be the Quins bedrock and it contains a formidable front row in Halpin, Keith Wood (the two Irish men, completely bald and both with neck sizes akin to an Aberdeen Angus, look like twins) and Jason Leonard.

After New Zealand's failure in the Tri-Nations, there was talk that Zinzan - "it's my grandmother's maiden name" - would rejoin the All Blacks. "It would be a bad move. I have cut my ties. My focus is on the club." In fact, as his grandparents are English, he is eligible for England. Too late. At the age of 33 he has a job and a half to do with a club that has its own brand of wine; a soft red, of course.

"I never thought 'What the hell am I doing here?' " Zinzan said. "I always knew it was going to be a challenge. What I will say is that we are going to be competitive." It sounded more like a threat than a promise.

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