Rugby Union: Lacroix has credentials to kick Quins into shape

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The United Nations off-shoot commonly known as Harlequins - or, more correctly in this multi-cultural and business-conscious age, NEC Harlequins in deference to the London club's Japanese sponsors - grows more exotic by the day. Thierry Lacroix, the most relentlessly accurate goalkicker in last year's World Cup, is about to pitch up at The Stoop via the French rugby hotbed of Dax and the South African citadel of Durban.

Lacroix, who has agreed in principle to a 30-month deal worth an estimated pounds 250,000 and is now waiting for formal clearance from the various governing bodies who still own a piece of him, has been pencilled in for a derby debut against Wasps tomorrow week. He is unquestionably a major capture, if only because he will add steel to Quins' notoriously fragile kicking game; indeed, he may well do everyone a service by nipping in the bud Will Carling's fledgling career as a marksman.

But as Quins may well discover when they take on the league leaders, Leicester, on home turf today - a game they must win to breathe new life into their own title ambitions - the signing of the season belongs to the Tigers. It is becoming increasingly clear that Bob Dwyer, the Australian World Cup-winning coach who moved to Welford Road during the summer, has succeeded in adding a genuine cutting edge to the Leicester juggernaut. By so doing, he has made them the team to beat in all three leading competitions, the Courage Championship, the Heineken European Cup and the Pilkington Cup.

Not that Dwyer considers the job even half-done. On the contrary, he almost damns his side with faint praise. There are no grand claims and talk of the fact that Leicester are on top of the domestic pile and favourites to beat the champions Toulouse in next weekend's European Cup semi-finals. "We move the ball quite nicely at times and by the end of the season I hope we'll be a reasonable side," he said yesterday. "By the end of next season we may almost be quite good." Calm down, Bob. Don't get carried away.

As usual with Dwyer, there is some clever psychology going on here. He knows full well that Leicester possess the outstanding pack in English rugby and is even more impressed by their defensive commitment - he actually uses the word "outstanding" in that respect, which is something of a departure. But he does not like complacency in any shape or form and, with a solid month of crucial matches ahead of him, the comfort zone is no place to be.

"I'm sure that the players would be intensely disappointed if they were to find themselves without a trophy come May," he said. "But I don't want them to think in those terms. The only way to approach the game is to concentrate on improvement, both individual and collective. While I believe there is a lot more dynamism and variety to this side than at the start of the campaign - the ball skills are a little better and the confidence higher - we are not yet close to where I want us to be."

Dwyer was forced into two late changes yesterday after losing his outside- half Rob Liley and his centre Stuart Potter to shoulder injuries. Niall Malone takes over the pivot role while Leon Lloyd moves inside from the left wing to partner the blossoming Will Greenwood in midfield. That allows Rory Underwood, the most-capped player in English history, to emerge from the shadows of second-string rugby and, Dwyer hopes, to release his pent-up frustrations on Carling and company.

With the spotlight shining ever more brightly on the international brigade rather than any home-grown players who might just drag England out of the doldrums, it is fitting that Francois Pienaar should make his debut for Saracens against the hapless strugglers from Orrell today.

South Africa's former captain, dumped by Andre Markgraaff, the Springbok coach, to the astonishment of Nelson Mandela, no less, teams up with Michael Lynagh, Philippe Sella and sundry Celts in a side that might, a year or so ago, have been fielded by the Barbarians.

Of far more interest to national selectors, both from Wales and those in the early stages of piecing together a Lions squad for the summer series in Pienaar's backyard, is a possible return of Gwyn Jones, the outstanding openside flanker in the four home countries, in today's match between Cardiff and Pontypridd.

Jones, a Llanelli player last season, dislocated his shoulder during the last Welsh tour of Australia and has yet to play for his new club, but if he comes back with a bang this afternoon, and Cardiff had made no final decision yesterday, it will be of more obvious benefit to British rugby than anything Lacroix or any other foreign import might achieve.