Rugby Union: Harlequins thrive on their sales pitch

Chris Hewett looks at the Courage club doing the business off the field
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The Independent Online
If the Rugby Football Union ever decides to place the running of the English game in the hands of a single, all-powerful supremo, it might do worse than consider the talents of Andrew Lloyd Webber. Professionalism may be less than a year old but the Courage League is already beginning to resemble a West End show: Gary Glitter soundtracks, Roy Orbison love songs, the Proclaimers and umpteen troupes of scantily clad dancing girls have all played their part in the wild, wacky and often excruciating world of pre-match entertainment.

Had the cold snap not accounted for last month's match between Saracens and Orrell, Francois Pienaar would have run out at Enfield in the company of a band of Zulu warriors. Having already attended a press conference in the chaotic surroundings of a virtual reality computerdome in Leicester Square, South Africa's World Cup-winning captain must be feeling more like Indiana Jones than a blind-side flanker.

Yet beneath the obsession with the puerile, some serious money-making is going on in the commercial departments of England's leading clubs. Leicester, for instance, report record takings in their club shop while Wasps, learning fast under the guidance of their entrepreneurial backer, Chris Wright, are beginning to stand on their own two feet in the market place as well as on the pitch.

Ironically, however, the most rapid advance towards the 21st century is being made by the most traditional of all English clubs. Harlequins, bankrolled by Japanese money and bolstered by its close connections with both Twickenham and the City, are so far ahead of the game in terms of infrastructure, ideas and business awareness that if they could replicate their off-field performance on the pitch, they would win this year's League and Cup double with one eye shut.

"We are run absolutely like a business," says Robert Catcher, the club's marketing executive, who overseas a full-time staff of seven at The Stoop Memorial Ground.

"We have a product to sell and a business plan in place to make sure we sell it. In the old days, Quins took the attitude that it was a privilege for people to do business with them. Now the boot is on the other foot; we get out there and present ourselves to potential clients, pitching for custom like an advertising agency."

That naked but hugely successful commercial approach is reflected in virtually every aspect of the club and with Catcher anticipating a pounds 3m profit from marketing activities this year, Quins are leaving all but the most successful Premiership football clubs with their faces in the dirt.

That pounds 3m estimate does not include gate money; neither does it include cash generated by corporate hospitality or restaurant and bar facilities soon to be available at the Stoop's new pounds 5m stand, which will pay for itself inside seven years. "We finished the stand to hotel standard and when it becomes fully operational in March, we will have restaurant space for 1,000 people and bar space for 2,000," Catcher says. "Most of the use will be non-rugby; our proximity to Heathrow and the scarcity of suitable venues in South-west London make us a viable alternative for companies hosting conferences and product launches. I only wish the full range of facilities had been available from the start of the season, because it's a massive asset."

On the other side of the pitch, the Quins shop leads the way in rugby merchandising. "The famous Quins shirt is the biggest-selling club jersey in the world - in fact, it may well be the biggest seller. Because we now believe it has overtaken the Welsh national jersey, which always used to be the market leader. It is perceived by women in particular to be a fashion garment and because of rugby's increased exposure this season, our manufacturers are now struggling to cope with demand. We're out of stock here; the interest has been fantastic."

The benefit of all this is felt first and foremost by the director of rugby, Dick Best, and his coaching staff. Best is secure in the knowledge that he can pursue any player in the world with a chequebook the size of the new stand. It is no coincidence that the great New Zealand flanker, Michael Jones, and his long-time back row colleague from Auckland, Zinzan Brooke, are both keen to play out their careers at Quins. They will be free to move when their international contracts expire after this autumn's All Black tour of England and while their joint asking price of pounds 800,000 for two years puts them beyond the majority of domestic sides, Quins can shoulder the burden with relative ease.

With that sort of spending power, Quins believe they can buy success and clearly intend to try. It is not good news for the England selectors, who already regard The Stoop as a wasted trip because more than half of the current line-up is foreign. By the middle of next season, the Londoners may be fielding a side with only three or four English-qualified players.

Does that worry anyone at The Stoop? Hardly. Little more than a decade ago, Quins were yesterday's men; powerful rivals - Leicester, Bath, Bristol and Gloucester - had left the old school tie brigade light years behind and were setting new standards in every phase of the game. Now, the wheel has come full circle. Money talks louder than ever and the City slickers from Twickers are beginning to shout at the tops of their voices.