Rugby Union: Pilkington Cup Final: Harlequins responsive to kudos of the big occasion: A third visit on the trot to rugby union's headquarters raises the question of priorities at The Stoop. Steve Bale reports

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The Independent Online
FAMILIARITY will never breed contempt for the cup final - look at Bath, finalists seven times in 10 years and distraught to be absent today. But Harlequins' reappearance for a third consecutive time does indicate what is awry as well as what is right with England's most idiosyncratic club.

When they contest the Pilkington Cup with Leicester, the Quins players will be expressing their own priority: the cup's intermittent kudos over the incessant, one might say insatiable, demands of league rugby. Their reluctance about the latter cannot simply be put down to persistent representative calls, which is as much a convenient excuse as explanation.

In an amateur game (honest) this is their prerogative, but the disquiet at its season-by-season persistence is felt within the club as well as outside. It is not a state of affairs - nor of mind - that endears itself to their own team management, let alone rival clubs who wonder whether Quins' league apathy plays fair by those straining after the title or against relegation.

Harlequins do enough each season to ensure their continuance in the First Division, whereas a club with such riches should at worst end up in the top handful every time. Jamie Salmon, the manager, knows this and in his determination to force change has put Andrew Harriman's nose out of joint. But then had he picked Harriman for the final he would have put everyone else's nose out of joint instead.

The manager's comment - 'Sometimes I think the only way we will succeed in the league is if I withdraw this club from the cup' - is splendidly ironic. Consider also what the England coach Dick Best, quintessential Harlequin and former club coach, once said: 'This team loves one-off big matches because, unlike the league, they don't interfere with shopping at Harrods and other events on the social calendar.'

By modern standards, this is unhealthy and Salmon's personality clash with England's sevens captain had much to do with attitudes to training and the game which corinthian Quins may hold dear but which became obsolete the instant the league began. Why, less glamorous Harlequins may ask, should we do the donkey work if the favoured few do not even turn up?

It is a valid point even if, without the recalcitrant Harriman, Quins will be at a critical disadvantage in pace and experience against Leicester's Underwood brothers. However talented they may be, it is asking an inordinate amount of the unfledged Jeff Alexander, 22, and Chris Madderson, 20, to keep tabs on Tony and Rory in front of 54,000 at Twickenham. 'Of course it's an ordeal for them, but we can only pick our two best wings,' Salmon said - an interesting reflection on where Harriman stands with Harlequins.

A decision on the fitness of Brian Moore will be left to today. Although he trained fully with the British Isles party last weekend, a groin strain meant the England hooker did not complete Wednesday's training at The Stoop. Nick Killick stands by.

So Harlequins may be changing. The ruggedness of the forward performance which discomfited Bath a year ago showed as much, and it also showed how the long-range rugby which won them the cup in the spectacular 1988 final against Bristol is effectively a thing of the past. We are more likely to see such a sight from Leicester today, though they, too, have changed beyond recognition.

Gone are the days when the sardonic question 'Is the pack playing?' referred to Dean Richards's selection or otherwise. Now the Tigers have the most promising front five forwards in England and, however much Harlequins may try to isolate him, the fastest and most effective open-side flanker in Neil Back. Then there is the inimitable Richards and John Wells, whom Richards says has been playing the best rugby of his career.

'We are capable of winning everything in the next few years,' Ian Smith, the Leicester coach, said. But what about now? 'If we manage the sort of rugby we have attempted all season and achieved against Northampton in the semi-final we know we can win.' On the other hand, the final is Peter Winterbottom's last domestic match before retirement and that should guarantee a big game by his team.

Even Winterbottom, last year's losing captain but the winner against Northampton in 1991, is baffled by this indefinable capacity to raise themselves in any cup tie but especially the final. 'Goodness knows how the Quins do it,' he said. But they do - which means Leicester's confidence, though perfectly understandable, might just be misplaced.