HAD HARLEQUINS lost this match, the Stoop last night would have been more desolate than a turkey farm. In one of the more curious encounters of the season, Quins entrusted almost all to their pack and the goal- kicking of John Schuster and very nearly came unstuck.
In the end Quins recorded their seventh win from their last eight Premiership games after seeing a 17-3 lead reduced to two points midway through the second half. Zinzan Brooke, the player-coach, clearly thought Sale was susceptible up front and, fuelled by a stream of penalties, Quins repeatedly went for the big drive, sometimes throwing threequarters into the rolling mauls, and repeatedly they were denied. On three occasions they lost the ball over the line.
One of the reasons for the Quins' run of form following a dismal start to the season has been the remarkable accuracy of Schuster. He was the first player in the Premiership to pass 200 points, landing 69 kicks out of 80, a phenomenal strike rate. Yesterday he kicked two penalties in the first five minutes but missed three others before half-time when the home side led 9-3.
The first half had been almost exclusively confined to rolling mauls - Sale only got into the Quins' 22 twice in the first half hour - and Schuster kicking at goal.
Within a minute of the re-start the complexion changed when Jamie Williams, probably the fastest full-back in the league, came into the Quins line, kicked ahead and got the touch-down, exploiting a mistake by his opposite number, Jim Mallinder.
When Schuster kicked a fourth penalty in the 53rd minute, Quins, unbeaten at home, were l4 points ahead. Within the space of a couple of minutes, Barrie-Jon Mather, the rugby league convert from Wigan, tore huge holes in the Quins' midfield defence. His first break resulted in a try for Chris Yates and the second for Steve Hanley. Shane Howarth was narrowly wide with the first conversion but kicked the second to make it 17-15.
In the last five minutes he had two long-range penalty attempts, down- wind, to win the game but put the first to the right of the posts and the second to the left. It was noticeable that when the Sale stand-off took the second kick, Brooke got as close to the whites of Howarth's eyes as possible. Gamesmanship? It is what he is paid for. "I'm just very relieved," John Gallagher, Quins' director of rugby, said. "We got away with it. We put in a great deal of effort but in the end we needed a bit of luck."
Sale were severely handicapped by an inability to guarantee their own line-out ball and on five occasions Phil Greening failed to find his jumper.
"I get annoyed with our naivety and lack of leadership," John Mitchell, the Sale coach, said. "We need an experienced pack leader and I've been saying that for a long time. It is about time the board took notice. These are professional players and it is their job to deal with it on the field."
Harlequins: Try Williams; Penalties Schuster (4). Sale: Tries Yates, Hanley; Conversion Howarth; Penalty Howarth.
Harlequins: J Williams; D O'Leary, D Officer (J Cayter, 77), J Schuster, D Luger; T Lacroix (capt), H Harries (C Wright, 70); J Leonard, T Murphy, G Halpin (D Barnes, 70), G Llewellyn, G Morgan (B Davison, 30), Z Brooke, C Sheasby, R Jenkins.
Sale: J Mallinder (capt); M Moore, B-J Mather, C Yates, S Hanley; S Howarth, K Ellis; D Bell, P Greening, P Winstanley (D Williamson, 74), D Baldwin, S Raiwalui, P Anglesea (A Sanderson, 74), D O'Cuinneagain, P Sanderson.
Referee: C White (Gloucester).Reuse content