Rugby Union: Injured Quins return to crisis

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The Independent Online
BY ANY reckoning, the rush by two Harlequins straight back into the England reckoning is remarkable. Peter Winterbottom returned last week after a hernia operation; this afternoon, astoundingly, Jason Leonard returns. Even if he is not seriously considered for England's game against Canada in a fortnight, he now looks as good as certain to face South Africa four weeks later.

Leonard, loose-head prop in England's consecutive Grand Slams, had a complicated spinal operation after the Welsh match last season. It required the incision to be made through the throat, and though Leonard and Quins never had any doubt about the future there were plenty who did.

Today he faces West Hartlepool at Brierton Lane, a crisis match for both clubs even though the Courage Championship programme has gone only two games. Their experience - two defeats each - is already enough to end title aspirations, according to Quins' manager, Jamie Salmon; with four going down, whoever slips to a third will have to start worrying about relegation.

Given the pedigree of most of the Harlequin players, their situation is an anomaly, but it will become less anomalous if weakened teams - Will Carling has pulled out today with a rib injury - and poor results continue to undermine a status which, given the whacking sponsorship they recently signed, should be the most exalted in club rugby.

The National League One has already divided into two, with Quins and West accompanied by Gloucester and London Irish among the point-less. There are only four 100 per cent teams at the top and, with Bath having their day off, one of Wasps, Leicester or Northampton will go top.

Wasps meet Leicester at Sudbury, Neil Back being another England contender to hasten back. The England B flanker hurt a shoulder when Leicester played England a month ago - an event most notable for the snarling refusal by the promising Tigers front row, average age 23, to be dominated by England's.

Tony Russ, Leicester's coaching director, reckons the Gloucester front row his men confronted last Saturday were tougher than England's, a theory that will be tested today when Jeff Probyn faces them for the second time this season. 'The good thing,' Russ said, 'is that they could be here for a long time. Props last.'

Probyn is the living proof of this, though his humour has not been helped by the way accusations against him made by an old sparring partner in the former Scotland captain David Sole's autobiography have been presented in a Scottish newspaper. Probyn is talking of suing.

As points in the bag now represent insurance against this season's multi-relegation, the outcome of London Scottish against Bristol - one win apiece - will be of considerable significance. Bristol have replaced the new Andy May with the old Mark Tainton at stand-off, which, whatever the necessity, seems like a step backwards.

Saracens and Orrell aspired to greater things last season but would settle for safety this time. Orrell were points-difference away from the title and, whatever the psychological debilitation caused by going so close, it is the physical debilitation caused by injuries and absentees that really threatens to ruin them. As neither Gloucester nor Rugby have broken their duck, any league points would be welcome, and as they play each other at Kingsholm, one or the other will end up happy.

And so to Wales, where it is hard to know if Wales v Italy next Wednesday or this afternoon's Heineken League matches are of more public interest. Here is a hypothesis: if St Helen's would hold the people, there would be as many there for Swansea v Neath as will be at Cardiff Arms Park to see the Azzurri.