RUGBY UNION: Quins on road to recovery

Pears is happy just to be in the running again but the club versus country debate is starting to heat up
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To draw a season's-worth of conclusions - especially about the impossibly unpredictable Harlequins - from the evidence of one game would be about as presumptuous as expecting David Pears to get through that season unscathed. But, in a charitable spirit out of keeping with the new, imminently professional age, let us do so anyway.

When Jerry Wallis's whistle blew on Quins' 29-20 defeat of Wasps at The Stoop, it was as if they had won a cup final - such was the multi-coloured exultation, the air-punching, the victory signs, the ecstatic salutes to an unwontedly animated crowd who greeted their unlikely conquering heroes.

Anywhere else, such acclamation would have been an exaggerated response to the gaining of two points but not here. Harlequins, perennial first division underachievers, have won their first two matches for the first time in nine seasons of taking Courage and, joy beyond compare, Pears has completed two league games for the first time in four years.

He also contributed 19 points including three drop goals in the final six minutes which belatedly gave Quins a margin in keeping with their patent superiority. He is playing outside-half, which he prefers, rather than full-back, where England used to prefer him, and having outshone Rob Andrew in front of Les Cusworth, England coach and an old England stand-off to boot, is bound to have returned to contention.

This is - so far, anyway - a happy conclusion to three agonising (often literally) years when Pears, who has now advanced to 27, has successively hurt his neck, back, jaw, groin, knee, hand and hamstring. Who else but David Pears could manage to pull a hamstring taking a 22 drop-out, as he did playing for England against Natal last year?

Yet he does not permit himself a moment's apprehension. "I'm not afraid at all," he said after his personal triumph (getting through 80 minutes; never mind the 19 points). "Once you go out on the pitch you have no time to think about picking up injuries." He could be forgiven for thinking otherwise, though he is making at least one concession to his "dodgy groin" by taking one fewer pace when kicking.

"He worries the life out of me," Keith Richardson, the Quins coach, shuddered. "I've always said he is capable of playing at any level he wants to, but the injury thing is very worrying. He does go in as if he's trying to take on the world. That's probably his biggest weakness: that he invites confrontation that's not always necessary."

You could take Pears as a metaphor for Harlequins who, when it comes to league rugby, have usually been on the permanently injured list, though the problem has had more to do with a dilettante attitude even last season when injuries really did hit hard and they were nearly relegated. "The skill has always been there; it's a mental thing, a state of mind," Richardson said.

In which case, for one day at any rate, the problem has been addressed. Quins beat Wasps not because they played a particularly clever game or did anything especially exciting. On the contrary, much of their rugby was drab and conservative. But they did play as a team, with genuine desire, and sustained it throughout: a trite but surprising combination that produced contrasting tries by Spencer Bromley in the first half and Chris Sheasby in the second.

"It looked as if it meant something to everybody," Richardson said, perhaps mixing relief with mild disbelief. "Harlequins have always been good if they can see what is needed. The cup, that's easy. But league games, a few in a row, they're boring. The players are now thinking they'll go out and win games whereas before they knew they could but weren't sure they wanted to get their hands dirty."

At the same time Wasps gave a display of such comprehensive disorganisation that their much-vaunted wide game was no more than a figment of Rob Smith's coaching imagination. Their title aspiration, hitherto plausible, was made to look like pretension and will remain so as long as the line-out is such a barren area or, put another way, as long as two back-row forwards - Matt Greenwood and Dean Ryan - are paired in the second row.

Quins controlled this critical area and even contrived to appear only mildly disadvantaged when Brian Moore moved to prop to accommodate the replacement, Simon Mitchell, at hooker. Though carried off on a stretcher and taken to the West Middlesex Hospital, Simon Brown had after all suffered no more than a minor bump on the head.

Without much ball to play with, Wasps were reduced to kicking the penalty goals that last season, in the first fanaticism of their running-rugby conversion, they disdained. After five by Andrew they eventually achieved a last-minute try by Ian Dunston immediately after Pears's first two drop goals and immediately before the third.

The difference from last September's Wasps half-century at The Stoop could not have been more diametric but then Quins are fitter in body as well as mind, are pragmatically playing to their back-row and midfield strengths, and in the rehabilitated Pears at last have someone to propel them forward in keeping with this untypical expediency. The audacious Harlequin rugby of legend (myth?) it is not, but for the moment winning is its own justification.

Harlequins: Tries Bromley, Sheasby; Conversions Pears 2; Penalties Pears 2; Drop goals Pears 3. Wasps: Try Dunston; Penalties Andrew 5.

Harlequins: J Staples; D O'Leary (C Wright 69), W Carling, W Greenwood, S Bromley; D Pears, R Kitchin (capt); S Brown (S Mitchell, 27), B Moore, A Mullins, A Snow, P Thresher, M Russell, C Sheasby, R Jenkins.

Wasps: J Ufton; P Hopley, D Hopley, A James, S Roiser; R Andrew, A Gomarsall; N Popplwell, K Dunn, I Dunston, M Greenwood, D Ryan (capt), L Dallaglio, P Scrivener, M White.

Referee: J Wallis (Bridgwater)