Rugby Union: Irish benefit from the Best touch

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The Independent Online
IT MAY be possible to take the Harlequin out of a man, but it is obviously a damned sight harder to take the man - or two men, to be precise - out of Harlequins. Dick Best and Andy Keast, whose attempts to impose some sort of work ethic on a dressing room full of pastel-shirted prima donnas notoriously earned them the heave-ho from their spineless employers, happened to be toasting the sweetest of victories in their old back yard when the Twickenham bush telegraph started buzzing with rumours of a full-time return to the Stoop Memorial Ground next season. And Will Carling thought he had done for the both of them.

Not that England's shopsoiled golden boy need lie awake at night fretting over any sudden rapprochement between his former club and his former adversaries; neither Best nor Keast would now touch Quins with an extendable bargepole. But there is, all the same, a tantalising possibility that the most potent coaching team in the Premiership will have their respective size 12s back under the Stoop table come September. Having outgrown their Sunbury homestead, happy-go-lucky London Irish are taking an increasing fancy to the idea of a ground-share with their hoity-toity neighbours.

Such a move will happen only in the decreasingly likely event of another of the capital's Exile outfits, London Scottish, selling its soul to Bristol. For, as Huw Morgan, the Quins chief executive, emphasised after the game, the landlords are getting along just fine with the current tenants. But he added: "To make our facilities work for us, we need something happening here every weekend rather than once every two or three weeks. Should Scottish disappear, for whatever reason, I'm sure we'll talk seriously to London Irish."

You have to savour the potential irony. Both Best and Keast found themselves impaled on the rough end of the player power pineapple as Carling, and others, set about shoring up the ruins of their fading careers, and there was nothing remotely pleasant about the experience. To return to the Stoop at the helm of a London Irish side relishing the lucrative prospect of a European Cup campaign would be pure nectar in itself. If Quins were to miss the cut into the bargain - well, there really would be a God.

For the time being, a hugely significant one-off victory will do nicely, thank you for asking. While Best tried everything in his power to play down the personal dimension - "The Harlequins avenue of my life is closed and, anyway, the players didn't go out there and win that game because X, Y or Z happened to me while I was coaching here; they don't play for me at all, but for themselves and each other" - he was more moved by their urgency, their rugged commitment to the cause, and their willingness to dig all the way down, than he would ever concede in public. He wanted this one very badly indeed.

"Yes, Dick has been driving us hard," agreed Conor O'Shea, the inspirational Irish full-back and captain, whose tries on 39 and 57 minutes ensured that his side would taste the previously forbidden fruits of a top three position among the Allied Dunbar elite. "But you don't necessarily want your coach to be your best friend and mollycoddle you all day long, do you? Rugby is all about concealing your weaknesses from the opposition, and our coaches are superb at looking at the tapes, identifying those weaknesses and making sure you know they're there.

"Dick likes to say that the shift from backslapping to backstabbing can happen very quickly and he's right to keep us on our toes," he added.

They were certainly on their toes, particularly during an exhilarating second half in which Steve Bachop spun his web so craftily that the big tacklers in the Quins side - Peter Mensah, Rory Jenkins, Chris Sheasby and Adam Leach - repeatedly found themselves driving their shoulders into thin air. O'Shea, Brendan Venter and Nick Burrows ran enough angles off Bachop to baffle a geometrist and slowly, but surely, the holes began to appear.

O'Shea's opening strike was a trademark effort. Three points adrift and gasping for the oxygen of continuity, the visitors finally worked their way on to the scoreboard when Bachop put Burrows into open field near halfway and then stood and applauded as his captain selected the optimum line on the centre's left shoulder to claim the five points in Jamie Williams' tackle.

The second owed everything to another inspired Bachop pass, while a third try, completed by Justin Bishop in the right corner 13 minutes from time, underlined once again how dangerous this Irish side can be from long range.

Yet it was their performance at the coalface, and in particular that of their tight five, that suggested the Exiles might take up permanent residence in the upper echelons of the Premiership. They scrummaged quite beautifully against a Quins front row boasting both Jason Leonard and Keith Wood; indeed, Clive Woodward, a London Irish coach not so many moons ago, could do far worse than slip back to Sunbury and give Neal Hatley the once over. The former Bedford loose head is an absolute ox of a forward - a running, passing, tackling ox. He made very nearly as many open-field hits as the remarkable Malcolm O'Kelly, who tackled more than anybody.

"These are the good times, but we're all perfectly aware this bubble could burst," insisted Best, who would happily apply the pin himself the moment he suspected any of his players of believing their own publicity. Those London Irish followers who sang sufficiently loudly to transform this contest into a home game, are equally aware. And does it worry them? Does it hell.

Harlequins; Tries O'Leary, Mensah; Conversions Schuster 2; Penalty Schuster. London Irish; Tries O'Shea 2, Bishop; Conversions Woods 2; Penalty Woods.

Harlequins: J Williams; D O'Leary, P Mensah, J Schuster, D Luger; T Lacroix (D Officer 47), H Harries (N Walshe 29); J Leonard, K Wood, G Halpin (D Barnes 62), G Llewellyn, G Morgan (W Davison 75), Z Brooke (capt, R Jenkins 11), C Sheasby, A Leach.

London Irish: C O'Shea (capt); J Bishop, N Burrows, B Venter, N Woods; S Bachop, P Richards; N Hatley, R Kirke, K Fullman (R Hardwick 73), N Harvey, M O'Kelly, J Boer, R Gallacher, R Strudwick.

Referee: B Campsall (Yorkshire).