Rugby Union: Mighty Quins in a class struggle

Rugby Union Diary
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The Independent Online
ALL EYES will turn once again to the Courage League table next weekend and for some of yesterday's England internationals it makes a sorry sight. Northampton are favourites to go down but are showing signs of resurgence under the guidance of Ian McGeechan; Harlequins, second from bottom, are feeling the heat. As Peter Winterbottom, the former Quins captain and now the second-team coach, says: "The team is very worried. It's been on their minds for a while." Quins, the toffs of the English game, have long booked a birth in mid-table mediocrity, but this season they have not been able to ensure survival. The rot set in, Winterbottom says, on the second league Saturday in September when free-running Wasps cameto the Stoop, threw the ball around as if it was a friendly, and notched up a remarkable half-century of points. "That was disastrous so early in the year, it knocked them back and they haven't been playing with a great deal of confidence since."

Dick Best has taken over as Harlequins coach since that Wasps walk-over, and has found his efforts frustrated by injuries and, more recently, by the loss of Carling, Moore and Leonard to international duties. "I just find it difficult to understand why teams which supply players to England are being punished," he says. "You spend time, money and effort in developing these good players and all of a sudden they are withdrawn from you."

Despite failing to win either of their League fixtures since the New Year, Best believes his side are on their way out of trouble. The injured players are on the return and a more aggressive approach has been taken in training. If either Harlequins or Northampton were to go down, however, it presents the possibility of Carling, Leonard and Moore, or Saints' Tim Rodber and Martin Bayfield playing in League Two. Would they leave their clubs to avoid this?

Winterbottom is convinced that the Harlequins three would stay: "We should bounce straight back up. I think they wouldn't mind a season in the Second Division, they would certainly find life a lot easier.'' Rodber and Bayfield would also play in League Two, as Rodber reveals in an interview in next month's FHM magazine. He and his team-mates called a special meeting where the issue was addressed. Solidarity prevailed - "No one is leaving," he says.

CONFUSION still surrounds the sacking of Mark Ring as captain and assistant coach at Pontypool. Ring was sacked two weeks ago and is still wondering why. He has been promised a letter of explanation but has received nothing.

The impeccable timing of the firing - the eve of the first round of Five Nations' games - meant that Ring's fall from grace has escaped publicity as has the similarity of his treatment with that of Steve Jones who was sacked from Pontypool two years ago.Jones, now coach at Newport, recalls: "In my situation, all I had was a phone call from the chairman who said, `They are looking to sack you'. I said: `Oh, I'll have to go up before the board. They can give me the reasons, and then I can make a reply.' But then they formed a new committee and said I had been informed that I had been sacked, when I knew nothing about it. It was out the back door, make no mistake. A club as big as Pontypool should have the men in there to explain their decisions."

While Ring awaits explanation, he can also contemplate his rugby future. He has already received six offers elsewhere.