Rugby Union: Henley profit from a semi-detached view

David Llewellyn finds successful clubs need not embrace full professionalism
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The Independent Online
HOLIDAY destinations at this time of year generally encompass places such as Val d'Isere, Klosters, Kitzbuhel, Aspen, Cortina and the like. Somehow Kingsholm does not quite fit the bill. But Gavin Sharp is going to give it a go.

Sharp is a firefighter contracted to the RAF - the service he left some two years ago - based in High Wycombe and free time is a precious commodity. "I haven't any choice," explained the 28-year-old Sharp. "I have to take a day's holiday on Saturday." It might well turn out to be the holiday from hell for the Henley wing and his colleagues as they go in search of victory in the Tetley's Bitter Cup in a fifth-round tie at Gloucester, despite their startling success in the previous round when they put paid, in convincing fashion, to Allied Dunbar Premiership One strugglers Bedford, with Sharp scoring two of their four tries.

Sharp caught the rugby public's eye when he turned out at centre for the Combined Services against the 1993 All Blacks at Devonport and tackled the New Zealanders (captained by John Mitchell, the Sale director of rugby) into the ground.

That was in his first incarnation as a Henley player, when they were coached by Clive Woodward. Sharp was subsequently signed by Bristol, for whom he played from 1994 to 1996, making 20 appearances and scoring four tries. "The problem was that I never had the speed to play at that level and ultimately I got a bit disillusioned," he said.

So it was back to Henley, whose approach latterly has been shaped as much by Tony McArthur, their director of rugby and a holder of a senior Welsh Rugby Union coaching qualification, as anyone. McArthur brings a refreshingly different attitude to the game. He assisted John Dawes in coaching the Welsh side a couple of decades ago after a distinguished career with London Welsh and Cardiff, but he has also lived life outside the game, and can lay dubious claim to inflicting Noel Edmonds on the public.

He was programme director with Radio Luxembourg for four years from 1967 and in that time Edmonds was introduced to him. "He was still doing his A-levels," recalled the 54-year-old McArthur, who went on to manage Shirley Bassey, Charles Aznavour and Rick Wakeman. Having left show business, McArthur, who had been drawn to the rugby club after moving to Henley, was persuaded to bring his business acumen and knowledge of the game together and, working in tandem with coach Nigel Dudding, to see where they could take the club.

Unsurprisingly for someone born in Aberystwyth but brought up in Australia (winning two caps for Australia Schools), it is an Australian coach, Bob Dwyer, who has provided McArthur with his abiding principle: "If they don't score against you they can't beat you." McArthur takes it a step further. "I've coached in the United States," he said, "and they have a concept of offensive defence. We have a similar approach. When we have the ball we attack and when they have the ball we attack them to get possession."

It is an approach which has taken the Hawks into second place in Jewson National League One - two divisions below Gloucester - with a formidable record of 51 tries (eight from Sharp) scored, against 17 conceded. Naturally, as much as the Cup means a great deal they are not harbouring romantic notions, although Sharp is undaunted. "I've played there before, for Bristol. The crowd never bothered me."

But promotion is the target this year. "We are ready for it," McArthur said. "I know we can compete there." He is also confident that they will hold their own on the financial front. "We are breaking even," he said. Not for Henley the importation of expensive stars, semi-professionalism is the name of their particular game.

But even if all they want to do is concentrate on the league and gaining promotion, there is no doubt that this week at least all minds will be focused on Saturday and the possibility of a giant-killing. After all, a Cup run beats an Alpine black run any day.