RUGBY UNION COMMENTARY : Moore the merrier for Harlequins

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The Independent Online
Harlequins beat Northampton 10-9 in a relegation slog at The Stoop that was a deal worse than England's against Scotland and, imagine, Brian Moore permitted himself not only a smile of celebration but a dance of delight.

The England hooker had no complaints, none whatever, after a result that takes Quins level with West Hartlepool on nine points and, with one going down, leaves Northampton three adrift on the bottom and therefore requiring to win at least two of their final four First Division fixtures.

Both sides were desperate - and so was much of their play. But Harlequins scarcely cared about that. The club's reputation for fine, fluent rugby is irrelevant to their avoidance of the Second Division, and even Dick Best, who built his reputation on the glorious free movement of Quins' 1988 cup win, has to agree.

Best, formerly coach to Harlequins and then England, returned to The Stoop at Christmas as the full-time director of rugby and this was his new team's first league victory under his tutelage - their first, as it happens, since they won at Northampton on 8 October. "You get to a stage when you are down the bottom when the style and quality of the game don't mean much," he conceded.

On the other hand, he did add this afterthought: "Being a purist, for me you can't have one without the other." He does not believe this can occur until safety is secured and a new season upon him and his players. "I would prefer to see this season over tomorrow," he said.

Best was alarmed at what he found when, in the wake of his peremptory dismissal from the England job, he resumed his former allegiance. Quins had a depleted squad - nothing like the international-packed centre of excellence of his earlier, halcyon Harlequin days - and the players' fitness levels had plummeted.

Bearing in mind that this deterioration took place at a time when everywhere else fitness for rugby was a fixation, this was rather shocking. Nowadays, Quins have a fitness man, a Scot by the name of Scott Campbell, who attends those Quins - even Brian Moore - who train at lunchtimes in the City of London to make sure they do both the prescribed quantity and quality of work.

In other words, they need watching and have needed the self-motivation without which titles are never won and First Division places do not deserve to be retained. Probably the most significant thing about Saturday's performance was that it contained those twin clichs pride and passion; which is a condemnation of what had gone before.

All the same, it was precarious, Northampton reaching half-time 3-0 ahead. But as soon as they turned hopefully downwind they were undone by their crass mistakes, beginning at the beginning with Paul Grayson's kick-off straight into touch which put Saints immediately on the defensive, where they stayed for most of the second half.

Harlequins missed their kicks, six between Challinor and Greenwood, and instead scored two tries from their solid scrummage. Chris Sheasby's pick- up was exploited by Rob Kitchin for the first and an embellishment of the Sheasby-Kitchin theme sent Jim Staples in for the second. But by then Grayson had added his second and third penalties and Northampton really should have found a way of closing down the game.

But no. Martin Bayfield won every ball that was thrown to him in the line-out and Moore was right to suggest Northampton would miss their two England players - Bayfield and Tim Rodber - more than Quins would miss their three - Moore, Jason Leonard and Will Carling - when they are forcibly rested on World Cup grounds during the April run-in.

But what Bayfield won Northampton squandered. When they had the ball, they had little clue what to do with it, a shortcoming that may be about to usher them out of the First Division. As Ian McGeechan, their harassed coaching director, put it: "We led to our own downfall.''

As for Moore, his rapturous relief made a pleasant change - both for him and everyone else - after his outburst about the Scots' approach to the Grand Slam match. The Harlequins captain says he has received scores of letters, including one saying that he had single-handedly advanced the cause of all those Scots who would repeal the 1707 Act of Union.

So Quins' Northampton match, prospective dogfight though it was, had not been on the Harlequins captain's mind last week. "I hadn't thought about it at all; I was too busy emptying my postbag of hate-mail," he said and then, while not retracting a word about those perfidious Scots, confessed that perhaps he might just have "taken the shine off the Grand Slam".

Playing at The Stoop, it seems, is infinitely more stressful than playing over the road at Twickenham. "I haven't felt any pressure at all with England but I've felt a lot with Quins," Moore said. "When I accepted the job I wanted to do big things but I underestimated the task. It became apparent it was more of a two or three-year task for the club.''

Moore says he will play out his career with Harlequins even if they go down, and everyone else - bar Gavin Thompson, who has already gone - will stay too, so he says. They say much the same at Northampton, for whom the dread possibility has now become a probability, and Bath have indeed accepted that they are no longer likely to sign Bayfield.

"Detailed discussions" with the 6ft 10in lock subsequently changed to Bath being more interested in Bayfield than he was in them. "It is the silly season for stories about players changing clubs," the same Bath official said.

The trouble for Bayfield is, like Rodber, he has an international career to pursue and in that pursuit the Second Division is still less perfect than the imperfect First.

Harlequins: Tries Kitchin, Staples. Northampton: Penalties Grayson 3.

Harlequins: J Staples; P Mensah, W Carling, W Greenwood, S Bromley; P Challinor, R Kitchin; J Leonard, B Moore (capt), A Mullins, A Snow, P Thresher, M Watson, C Sheasby, R Jenkins.

Northampton: I Hunter; N Beal, F Packman, M Allen, H Thorneycroft; P Grayson, M Dawson; M Volland, A Clarke, M Lewis, J Phillips, M Bayfield, P Walton, T Rodber (capt), J Cassell (S Foale, 80).

Referee: E Morrison (Bristol).