Rugby Union: Quins at home in a crazy world

Bath 13 Harlequins 17
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The Independent Online
IF YOU still think there is an ounce of sanity in the wild and wacky world of professional rugby, try making sense of this little lot. It is a world in which the English Premiership clubs can decide to purchase one of their own for the princely sum of pounds 1, close them down and put 22 players and umpteen ancillary staff on the dole; in which a handful of investors and chief executives can bulldoze through a fixture list for next season in defiance of virtually every leading coach in the country; in which Fran Cotton can be appointed to an influential position on the very same Rugby Football Union management board he wants voted out of existence next month. Crazy, huh?

Well, it is not nearly as crazy as this. By way of capping a season that has lurched from the confusing to the unfathomable via the utterly bizarre, Harlequins arrived at their least favourite venue, the Recreation Ground in Bath, and proceeded to give the former European champions a tutorial in all the arts they once mastered more completely than any club this side of the equator: defence, percentage rugby, gamesmanship, one-upmanship and finishing.

They also played with heart and soul and spirit and intensity. Yes, this is Quins we are talking about, those high-rolling ponces from south-west London with their hair gel and multi-coloured shirts. Pinch me, someone. Tell me it's a delusion.

Harlequins are now safely installed in next season's elite European competition, having beaten Bath on their own semi-swamp for the first time since William Webb Ellis was eating Cornpops for breakfast. The fact that the West Countrymen are now in mortal danger of missing the top six qualification cut merely underlines the scale of an upheaval in which the visitors outscored their hosts by three tries to one. What is more, and this bit really is bonkers, Quins actually expected to win.

"I'm not surprised at the result, given the way we've been playing on the road of late," pronounced Bernie McCahill, the former All Black centre who now coaches at The Stoop. "In fact, we targeted this game because we didn't want to have to beat Newcastle up there, or beat Wasps in an end-of-season derby, to make sure of qualification. We quite fancied it, to tell you the truth."

Given the one-sided history of this fixture - traditionally, the only thing a Harlequin would expected from his day out in the Georgian city was a barbed mouthful from Stuart Barnes and an agricultural seeing-to from Gareth Chilcott and his fellow yokels - McCahill's words seemed almost to usher in a new age.

In actual fact, the shock of the new may not last too long, for Bath are not a million miles away from being a very useful side indeed. Iain Balshaw, Mike Tindall, Kevin Maggs, Matt Perry and Gareth Cooper will be a season older come September and when they put it all together on a regular basis, good teams are going to suffer. But that will be next season. Just at the moment, it is Bath who are suffering as they contemplate an unfavourable European qualification equation that requires both a 36- point victory over London Scottish next weekend and either two defeats for Saracens or one for Newcastle.

Andy Robinson, who lives and breathes Bath, is the sufferer-in-chief. "I think that's about it for us and Europe, isn't it?" said the coach on Saturday night. "Newcastle won't lose now. I'm down about it, of course I am. I'm bitterly frustrated at having the game won and letting it slip. But that's sport, and one of the reasons I'm involved in sport is the heightened emotion it causes. It was always going to be an nervy, edgy sort of afternoon and, although we lost, that's the glory of the thing. Human beings play rugby and human beings make mistakes. If it was played by machines, rugby would be very easy and very boring."

Robinson's future is in the hands of Andrew Brownsword, the chief executive and chief financier of a great club smitten by rampant insecurity. And, while a rapport undoubtedly exists between the two men, the coach would be unnaturally self-assured if he did not spend yesterday wondering about tomorrow. Happily, his senior players intend to mount a better defence of their coach off the field than they have recently managed on it.

"Robbo couldn't have given anything more to the cause," said Martin Haag, the long-serving second row. "When all is said and done, he didn't coach us to bugger up three-man overlaps or give the opposition daft tries."

Haag put Saturday's events in a nutshell. A try by the outstanding Russell Earnshaw on 18 minutes gave Bath an early 13-5 and had Perry, playing out of position at stand-off, converted either of two kickable 30-yard penalties, he would surely have saved his colleagues a whole lot of heartache.

As it turned out, they would not score again. Balshaw, the most dangerous player on view but also the most profligate, botched an easy five-point finish at the end of the first half, while Dan Lyle's lack of peripheral vision cost his side another opportunity seven minutes into the second.

Meanwhile, Quins were making the most of Bath's defensive generosity. Their opening try, the result of John Schuster's floated pass and Dan Luger's pace, was a gem, but the other two were gimmes: a charge-down score for Peter Mensah and a free 50-yard run-in for Jamie Williams, both of them directly attributable to the fragility of Balshaw's kicking game. "We have some stunning talent at this club, but, when the chips are down, experience is a priceless commodity," acknowledged Robinson.

Bath: Try Earnshaw; Conversion Perry; Penalties Perry 2. Harlequins; Tries Luger, Mensah, Williams; Conversion Schuster.

Bath: I Balshaw; M Tindall (P De Glanville, 10), J Guscott (capt), K Maggs, A Adebayo; M Perry, G Cooper; D Hilton (K Yates, 71), M Regan, V Ubogu, M Haag, S Borthwick, N Thomas, D Lyle, R Earnshaw.

Harlequins: J Williams; J Keyter, P Mensah, J Schuster (D Officer, 71), D Luger; T Lacroix, H Harries (N Walshe 74); J Leonard, K Wood, R Nebbett (G Halpin 56), G Llewellyn, G Morgan, C Sheasby, Z Brooke (capt; A Leach, 59), R Jenkins.

Referee: S Piercy (Yorkshire).