Rugby Union: Quirky Quins a mystery

Click to follow
ONE of the healthiest features of the Courage league is that it has disturbed the traditional pecking order of the English clubs. Who, in the old days, would have ranked Orrell, Rugby, Saracens and West Hartlepool above Coventry, Richmond, Sale and Waterloo? And who would have placed London Welsh well behind all of them?

In Wales, by contrast, the Heineken League has so far confirmed the hallowed rankings, with (in alphabetical order) Cardiff, Llanelli, Neath, Newport and Swansea as the principal clubs.

At the very top, however, English rugby has turned out to be similar. Despite the recent rise of Orrell and the rest, the leading clubs over the past decade have been Bath, Harlequins, Leicester and Wasps, with Northampton only now recapturing their former eminence.

The most puzzling of the leading English clubs remain Harlequins. They have lost two matches, drawn one and won one. They are only a point and one place away from the relegation zone.

And yet they possess three players (Will Carling, Brian Moore and Peter Winterbottom) who would be virtual certainties in any British Isles XV. Jason Leonard would press strongly for inclusion, too. Leonard has, in my opinion, been reinstated too rapidly in the England side, after only two first-class games this season. But that is another matter.

Among the rest of the forwards, Andy Mullins is an English international and Neil Edwards, who hails from the lowlands of Carshalton, has played for Scotland. Alex Snow, the other lock, is in the England squad, the sole addition to Wade Dooley and Martin Bayfield.

This is ridiculous. It is quite unfair to other players in the same position, such as Sean O'Leary, of Bath, and Snow's own Quins team-mate, Simon Dear. It has aroused further charges of favouritism against Dick Best, the England coach.

Though he has reluctantly cut his formal links with the club, his personal connections remain as strong as ever. Nothing wrong with that: no one should expect a man to renounce his old friends and acquaintances. But the England coach must not only be unbiased: he must clearly be seen to be unbiased. It is not always evident that Best realises this simple truth.

The powerful Mark Russell, who could have opted for Wales (as his brother, Stuart, whose career was sadly cut off by an eye injury, did), is regarded as an outstanding prospect at No 6. Richard Langhorn, the No 8, has been injured for most of the season. But his replacement, Chris Sheasby, is the more complete forward, except in the line-out.

Andy Harriman is the fastest wing in English rugby and, after Nigel Walker of Cardiff, in British rugby: a contest between them would certainly be worth seeing. Mark Evans has replaced the unlucky Gavin Thompson as the young centre most likely to crash the England squad. Mike Wedderburn does everything that he is asked to do on the left wing.

There are, it is true, problems at full-back and half-back. David Pears, in the former position, broke his jaw against Bath and has been replaced by his predecessor, Stuart Thresher. Paul Challinor does not quite look the part at outside-half. A fine all-purpose back though Rob Glenister is, I have yet to be persuaded that he is the superior of Craig Luxton, who has understandably taken himself off to Rosslyn Park.

Despite the weakness at half-back, and despite the suspicion that certain players (such as Leonard, Mullins and Snow) would not have progressed so far and so fast if they had not joined Quins, they remain a formidable outfit - on paper. As team manager, they now have Jamie Salmon, who knows the game inside out, played for New Zealand and should have played more often than he did for England.

And yet in the league, as distinct from the cup, they almost always appear less than the sum of their parts. Against Bath they were half asleep. Against Wasps they were beaten for pace in the crucial areas. And against London Scottish last Saturday they allowed the drawn game to drift away from them in the second half, though Carling scored a try in the first minute of the match and they were 22-3 up at half-time. What on earth is wrong with Harlequins?