Rugby Union: Quins make domestic title top priority

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The Independent Online
Harlequins' defeat at Munster in rugby union's Heineken Cup last week raised spectres of the past, when sides rarely strung together consistent performances, but their director of coaching, Andy Keast, says those ghosts have been exorcised, as David Llewellyn heard.

It has been an unhappy week for Harlequins. They found nothing amusing in Limerick where Munster upset their rhythm and consigned the Cosmopolitans to second place in their Heineken European Cup pool, thereby denying them valuable home advantage in the quarter-finals.

When the draw was made, bas became worse - Toulouse, the European and French champions, whose season is just getting into gear. On their home turf at Les Sept-Deniers they may not be invincible - Leicester have proved that already this season - but they will not roll over.

"We will be going there intending to carry on trying to play the kind of rugby we have been working at," said Andy Keast, their astute director of rugby. "If we can't beat them playing the style of rugby that suits us, then we will never beat them."

At least Harlequins have some breathing space as far as European competition is concerned. This weekend English clubs resume their interrupted domestic campaign in the cauldron of intensity that is the Allied Dunbar Premiership, and Keast insists that the Premiership is where their ambitions lie.

His statement that "Europe was never a goal of ours, it was merely something we used as a stage to practise and create a certain type of play for us to take into the league," needs something to help it down, so hard is it to swallow.

But the 35-year-old Devonian is no glib rap artist. He is a no frills man, a straight talker, and the claim makes more sense when juxtaposed with what he has to say about the league. "We would like to get some consistency in the Allied Dunbar Premiership. That is what we are striving for. Because of that there was no pressure on the players in the Heineken Cup, although it is good to be in the quarter-final."

Unfortunately, it does not get any better for Quins. They may only have to travel a short distance up the Chertsey Road to tackle Richmond, but they must do so without key players. Their goal-kicker supreme, Thierry Lacroix, flanker Laurent Cabannes and the powerful prop Massimo Cuttitta will be absent, on duty for France and Italy in the Latin Cup, which will keep them out next weekend as well when Quins face Sale at The Stoop .

Keast, though, is not unduly worried. "The guys I have in mind to bring in to the side are up to the job," he said. "I have no worries. They may not be high profile stars or household names but they are still very talented players."

He does admit though that both those matches represent a critical period if Harlequins are to emerge as front runners in the Premiership. "Ideally we have to win both games, and we are quite capable of that," he acknowledged, "but it won't be the end of our season if we lose either or both. Munster was one bad week. Until then we had got into the winning habit."

The side will not be announced until tomorrow, but the likely lads include Rob Liley, a possible replacement for Lacroix, or his squad rival Paul Challinor; the back row specialist Gareth Allison, an aggressive, skilful player who may well stand in for the brilliant Cabannes, and, in the front row, the Fijian Daniel Rouse, who holds an English passport, or Altan Ozdemir.

This home guard, as it were, has an unenviable task. The success of Harlequins' whole season could stand or fall on their performance without the bulk of their foreign legion.