RUGBY UNION: Best needs nothing less than the best

Steve Bale on the disputes at the top and the bottom in today's rugby union
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The Independent Online
When there was talk of the half-dozen or so leading clubs of England becoming a self-perpetuating lite it was assumed Harlequins and Northampton would be among them. The Stoop has temporary extra seating and will be filled with 8,000 people for this afternoon's vital encounter.

This, though, is the difference between perception and reality. Far from going for the title, as they might have expected, these would-be litists are scrambling so frantically in the relegation zone that whoever loses today will be in the gravest peril of Second Division rugby. So much for litism.

In fact, the temporary seating was already due for installation before Quins' Cup semi-final against Bath next Saturday, a distraction they could probably have done without at this difficult time when every other club is waiting, vulture-like, for their demise.

After the Grand Slam this is distinctly low life and, to the intense relief of their coaches, five of England's champion side will be at each other at The Stoop. It makes a change. This will be the first time since Dick Best returned to Harlequins at Christmas that he has been able to field his strongest side.

Mick Watson, the former West Hartlepool No 8, is finally eligible and the return of Carling, Leonard and Moore gives Quins a better look than they have had all season, before or after Best's appointment as director of rugby.

Times, however, have changed. The last Quins team Best sent out before becoming the England coach in 1991, for the cup final against Northampton, contained 11 internationals. Now, with Mullins and Staples, there are five.

It is also an attitude of mind, and Quins have even kicked their erstwhile habit of doing just about enough in the League while more genuinely striving in the Cup. It is also asking more than is reasonable of their three Grand Slam players to produce another such match-winning performance today.

You could say the same of their equivalents at Bath; at least you could have said that of them if they were playing in the critical match at the other end of the table, the champions' visit to Wasps. Ben Clarke does, but Jeremy Guscott informed the club a long while ago that he would be at the Hong Kong Sevens and Victor Ubogu added himself to the eastbound exodus at the last minute.

With others injured, unavailable and rested, this is as difficult a match as Bath have faced all season. If they and Leicester, away to West Hartlepool, lose their momentum Wasps are still well-enough placed to take advantage with their dynamic form of rugby.

Saracens will ensure they replace the relegated once they gather two more points, though they did not expect to have that chance today. Then the Rugby Football Union ordered them to proceed with their home fixture against Nottingham.

Having originally been allowed to postpone the match because of their two players with the England Sevens team in Hong Kong and two with England Colts, Saracens are livid at the RFU's change of mind. They have not been training and are without others given the weekend off on the basis that there was no game. "I am absolutely apoplectic," Mark Evans, their coach, said.

n Louis Luyt yesterday won re-election as the president of the South African Rugby Football Union and then promptly launched an attack on his fellow executives.

"Duplicity, backbiting and gossip are very prevalent," he said. "A president must be able to trust his executive and committee members. No president can operate in an atmosphere of distrust and uncertainty."

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