Rugby Union: Gallagher plans Harlequins' revival

Rugby Union: Playboys of the English elite have decided to solve their ills with a double dose of All Black tonic
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IT IS time to own up. The old Harlequins were never quite as bad as most decent rugby folk felt it their duty to make out. Agreed, Brian Moore was a pain in the posterior, Mick Skinner was all mouth and haircut, Will Carling was never anything other than his own favourite groupie and the side was chocker with non-training City types who took their rugby seriously only when there was a run on the pound. But they could still play a bit when they had to, damn them. They could even win at Gloucester if it meant staying in the First Division.

They are not the old Harlequins any more, of course. They have taken to calling themselves NEC Harlequins in deference to their sponsors and they no longer appear to be much good whatever the situation, however high the stakes might be.

One joke running around the West Country suggests that the NEC actually stands for Now Entirely Crap. Another insists that Zinzan Brooke, their spectacularly expensive import from All Black country, is the least successful coach in big-time rugby - except, of course, for John Hart (ho ho).

But Zinny's head is not the one on the block; after all, a celebrity- conscious club like Quins will always find gainful employment for someone of the great Maori's legendary stature. The real hot seat at The Stoop tends to be the one inhabited by the poor old director of rugby, two of whom - Dick Best and Andy Keast - have been propelled towards the exit door in the space of 18 turbulent months. Enter John Gallagher, another silver-ferned icon from New Zealand's supreme 1987 World Cup-winning squad. Do you not feel just a little, how shall we say, temporary, John?

"Well, I've only signed a one-year contract," admits Gallagher, born down the road in Blackheath 29 years ago but burnished far away in Wellington, North Island, from which academy he graduated to All Black status and scored 13 tries in 18 Tests for his adopted country. "But that suits me in the same way it suits Quins. There is a good deal I want to put in place here and you can't do it all with a snap of the fingers, but I fully understand that the sponsors and supporters want a quick fix on the success front.

"Stability? It's not for me to talk about how stable my position might be. I've been involved with professional sport long enough now to appreciate how fickle a business it can be, which is why I'm quite happy for everything to be reviewed at the end of the season. I want to do the job, but I want to do it properly. The way I see it, there is absolutely no point any of us - Zinny, Adrian Skeggs, Bernie McCahill or myself - being here if we're going to compromise."

Except that Quins are being compromised, on a weekly basis; they were a shambles at Leicester on the opening day of the Premiership campaign, they were indisciplined at Northampton and they returned from Sale pointless, in more ways than one.

They even managed to lose at Bedford last weekend, having reached injury time 33-23 up. Prior to that match, John Schuster, their star kicker, missed a simple warm-up shot in front of the posts and put out a wing mirror on Brooke's car. Symbolic or what?

There will be no let-up this afternoon when they go toe to toe with Saracens, the best side in the country. Intriguingly enough, the cup holders and current title favourites consider The Stoop to be something of a minefield, but they are a highly professional outfit these days and Gallagher knows that unless his fragile charges find a way of matching the visitors' hard edge, another embarrassment is on the cards.

"I certainly think there is a culture of under-achievement at Quins," he agrees, "but if we go about things the right way, we can rid ourselves of all the old fancy-dan mythology in the space of a season or so. Who were Sarries two years ago? Who were Newcastle? They have done us all a favour by showing that it's possible to come from next to nowhere and achieve great things within a short space of time. We're starting from a higher base, so in theory we should be able to turn ourselves around more quickly."

Gallagher had been planning to split his time between a tracksuit job at Blackheath RFC and a teaching job at Colfe's School in London when the Quins opportunity landed in his lap: "To be honest, the Blackheath thing was up in the air anyway - plans to establish a working relationship with Auckland had gone belly up, our major sponsors hadn't released any money and, as a result, 75 per cent of the squad were heading for greener pastures. Zinny, who was already on board at Quins, asked me if I might be interested in joining him, and the people at Colfe's said `OK, take a year out and see how things develop.' "

"There is more than 12 months' work to be done here, obviously, but we're making a start. We're fielding an under-21 side for the first time in years and while the players are strictly amateur, at least they have a future. In a fully professional set-up, it's the age-grade sides that go whenever there is a tightening of the purse strings. By doing it this way, we're showing a commitment to the whole concept of youth rugby. And if we get ourselves a couple of stars out of it, great. We'll start paying them.

"Fortunately for me, Zinny and his partners are doing a sound job with the coaching. I may take the occasional look and ask them why they have decided on a particular course of action, but I'm not on their shirt-tails all day, cleaning up behind them. Their expertise and enthusiasm allows me to get on with running the club and as Harlequins will always be a big club, there is a lot to run.

"No, we haven't had the start we were after, but we're the sort of side who might get a result against anyone. That's sport, isn't it? One week you're pulling your hair out, the next you're as happy as anything. Unless you're fairly philosophical about these things, you'll be a nervous wreck in no time."

So how philosophical were you at Bedford last weekend, John? There is a small pause. "Actually," he says, "I think I was probably a nervous wreck."