Rugby Union: Harlequins' hopes almost go west

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The Independent Online
West Hartlepool. . .9

Harlequins. . . . .12

THE widespread belief that Harlequins will once again be the First Division's most notable under-achievers was tested to breaking point by a vibrant and, in the end, desperately unfortunate West Hartlepool.

Despite other impressive virtues, West Hartlepool do not have a reputation as a conspicuously original side; their approach is more structured and well-organised. They also lack guile. But at Brierton Lane yesterday, with new-found inventiveness, just as they seemed poised to deliver the knockout punch, their confidence, and John Stabler's goal-kicking touch, deserted them. With more of either, West's toe-hold in the First Division would look a lot less insecure than it does now.

This was an important game for both clubs, each having lost their first two League matches. West, perhaps, are mentally more attuned for an attritional struggle after successive promotions had elevated them from the Third Division. For Quins, another loss and they would be piecing together a rescue plan.

Harlequins began nervously as West took the game to them, driving with conviction to put Stabler in range for his opening penalty. Stuart Thresher soon had a chance to draw level, but he fluffed a simple penalty from in front of the posts.

But not for long. Kevin Westgarth and Alex Snow were deemed to have contested a line- out with unacceptable vigour and Paul Challinor soothed Quins' anxieties with a well-struck goal from right of the posts. Five minutes later, the outside-half coolly kicked the Londoners into the lead from the other side, as Harlequins at last began to find some rhythm; Andy Harriman and Thresher fully extending the capabilities of the home defence.

However, West had some attacking ideas of their own. The best effort of the half, as Quins were forced back, came from scrum-half Jonathan Wrigley, who crossed the line only to be recalled as Westgarth's pass was adjudged marginally forward.

At 6-3, Harlequins were obliged to regroup when hooker Brian Moore departed with an injury to his right arm, which may keep him out of England's team for the game with Canada at Wembley on Saturday week. Quins' scrum was only momentarily discomforted before Challiner upped their advantage on the stroke of half-time with his third penalty.

West began the second half uncertainly. Kevin Oliphant dropped Challiner's high kick and, as Quins poured through, the penalty was given for offside; but Challiner was off target. Given a similar opportunity, Stabler made no mistake. With 30 minutes remaining, there was still plenty to play and - as Neil Edwards was evidently prepared - to fight for.

An exuberant piece of running by Craig Lee ought to have been rewarded with a try, but the young centre's surety went missing as the Quins midfield was in shreds. But in plugging the gaps, Cameron Short fell offside, allowing Stabler to level the scores.

In the next exchange of penalties, Challiner was the victor to restore Quins' single-score cushion, and the most relevant question as the final quarter was reached was: would it be sufficient?

In the dying moments, David Cooke looked to have put the issue beyond doubt for West, but an apparent double movement as the wing went for the touchdown denied him. Stabler's two penalty misses - the second in injury-time - which would have earned a draw were less dramatic, but equally cruel.

West Hartlepool: K Oliphant; O Evans, P Hodder, C Lee, D Cooke; J Stabler (capt), J Wrigley; P Lancaster, S Mitchell, P Whitelock, J Dixon, K Westgarth, D Blyth, A Brown, P Evans.

Harlequins: S Thresher; A Harriman, G Thompson, C Short, M Wedderburn; P Challinor, R Glenister; J Leonard, B Moore (M Hobley, 29 min), A Mullins, N Edwards, A Snow, M Russell, P Winterbottom (capt), C Sheasby.

Referee: S Lander (Liverpool).

Scorers: Stabler (pen, 6 min) 3-0; Challiner (pen, 14 min) 3-3; Challiner (pen, 19 min)

3-6; Challiner (pen, 41 min) 3-9; Stabler (pen, 46 min) 6-9; Stabler (pen, 53 min) 9-9; Challiner (pen, 56 min) 9-12.