Rugby Union: Rees caught between a ruck and a hard place

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The Independent Online
Harlequins 22 Wasps 42

A hard pitch, hard men and a hard match should have marked the end of a hard season for Wasps and everyone else. But the bulk of the Wasps squad have to remain in training because they will be required for one more match, at Twickenham. Not the Pilkington Cup final, but the Sanyo Cup two weeks later - a showpiece affair against a World XV, which already looks surplus to requirements. The league champions ended their campaign with a flourish, that should have been that.

But then the hard work begins, preparing for a new season when Newcastle and Richmond join the elite, and they will be no pushovers.

If the players thought this campaign has been tough, next year threatens to be even more demanding. Nigel Melville, Wasps' director of rugby, predicts: "Next season will be much harder. There are going to be 12 very competitive teams in the Premiership and I think the league will be decided on fewer points. It will be really tough playing away from home."

So after almost nine months of thump and grind the hard work is just about to begin, and those players not fortunate enough to be required by the Lions or their country for one or other of the numerous summer tours will be reporting around midsummer, or earlier, to their clubs, after the briefest of breaks, for pre-season training. The age of professionalism has truly dawned.

The rigours of the inaugural professional league were apparent in both sides on Saturday. However good Wasps were at The Stoop, Harlequins were not far behind, going down bravely with some style and steel. They have been hit badly by injuries, a state of affairs which underlines the need for strength in depth and number.

Dick Best, Harlequins' director of rugby, is looking to scrap his second XV and work on a squad of around 32. Melville takes the opposite view. He believes quality second XV rugby is essential to keep those in reserve honed to a competitive edge, and is talking of increasing the size of his squad. He needs at least 42 players just to put out two teams.

But with the amount of rugby being demanded of players a large squad makes sense. Even Best admitted: "Quite how much juice these fellows have left in their tank for their summer tours remains to be seen. And quite what state they will come back in is also a matter for conjecture."

That Quins were able to field a fourth-choice scrum-half, the 19-year- old Richard Sharples, bodes well for the future. The youngster did not let them down. They remained competitive in that area, which probably had as much to do with the players around him as it did with his own talent, of which he has a great deal as one scintillating break showed.

Sharples is still a student, Gareth Rees is not. The bulky Canadian has been Wasps' full-back for much of the season, but played in the No 10 shirt against Quins, amassing 17 points. He is contemplating reducing his workload at Eton College, where he teaches, in order to pursue his playing career as a more or less full-time professional. It has been a hard decision. But then he is in a hard world these days. A world where to work hard is to play hard.

Harlequins: Tries Allison, Cabannes, Keyter; Conversions Lacroix, Corcoran; Penalty Lacroix. Wasps: Tries Logan 2, Henderson 2, Green, Rees; Conversions Rees 3; Penalties Rees 2.

Harlequins: J Staples; D O'Leary, J Keyter, T Lacroix (R Davies, 54), M Corcoran; P Challinor, R Sharples; L Benezech (A Mullins, 74), T Billups, J Leonard (capt), Gareth Llewellyn, L Gross, G Allison (P Delaney, 75), B Davison (S Owen, 57), L Cabannes.

Wasps: J Ufton; S Roiser, N Greenstock, R Henderson, K Logan; G Rees, A Gomarsall; D Molloy, S Mitchell (K Dunn, 68), W Green, M Greenwood, A Reed, L Dallaglio (capt), C Sheasby (P Scrivener, 54), M White (D Cronin, 70).

Referee: C White (Cheltenham).