Rugby Union: West put faith in magic of Monkley

Premiership strugglers aiming to build on first win with help from formidable New Zealand flanker.
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IT IS REASONABLE to suggest that the vast majority of West Hartlepool rugby union supporters - always assuming the words "vast" and "majority" can be properly used in relation to the Premiership's smallest and least fashionable club - are currently unable to tell their Duane Monkleys from their Shane McDonalds. Happily, their ignorance is unlikely to survive much beyond the first couple of minutes of tomorrow's intriguing rumble with Northampton.

West have completed another of their raids on New Zealand rugby's bloodstock market and, this time, they have bought themselves some genuine thoroughbreds. Suddenly, the paupers are up out of the gutter and heading for the bright lights. Well, sort of.

Monkley, routinely described as the finest Kiwi open-side flanker never to don an All Black jersey, and McDonald, the former Tara-naki hooker, were set to work for their new employers at Bedford last Saturday and promptly laid the foundations for a first victory of the campaign. OK, so it was not the Springboks they beat down at Goldington Road but when you have just spent four depressing months going 11-zip and shipping 467 points in the process, any win is a big win.

According to Mike Brewer, whose own All Black credentials could hardly be more impeccable, West are now equipped with a pack capable of going gumshield-to-gumshield with the best in the country.

"I'm confident we finally have the players to do the right things at the right moments in the right situations," said the player-coach this week. "In a very short space of time, Shane has rectified some of our more obvious problems at line-out and scrum. And Duane? Well, he's just Duane. There aren't many like him. He's 32 now but I would unhesitatingly class him amongst the most effective open-sides anywhere in the world.

"He closes down the opposition, makes the big tackles, gets his hands on the ball and turns the other guy over in a flash. The way rugby is played these days, it's the good defensive sides that win the games; more often than not, four or five big turnovers are enough to get you the result. That's where Duane comes in; he's a mirror image of Neil Back in that he plays with such enormous zest and energy. I had to outbid Harlequins to get him here and it meant scraping the bottom of the barrel, but Jeez, he's worth it."

Monkley spent last season playing for Western Province - now renamed the Western Stormers - the crack South African Currie Cup side, but British aficionados will know him better as one buzz-bombing third of the wonderful Waikato back row that took the 1993 Lions to the cleaners in Hamilton. John Mitchell, the Sale coach who also acts as Clive Woodward's second- in-command at England level, played No 8 to Monkley's No 7 that day and it was he who suggested that Brewer might reach for the chequebook.

"Actually, I originally had my sights on Eric Miller, who was very disaffected at Leicester," Brewer admitted. "But Eric made it clear that he wanted to go home to Ireland, so I contacted John and asked him if he had any ideas. He knew Duane had been a big success in Cape Town and that the Western Stormers were keen on playing him in next season's Super 12, but the South African Rugby Football Union see that competition as a Springbok testing ground, so the door was open.

"You might wonder why John didn't sign Duane himself, but he has an England Test flanker in Pat Sanderson and he probably reckoned it would be a backward step, given his own role in the Twickenham set-up. We were in a different situation; we needed some proven quality, some experience. Duane has a good two seasons left before his body starts asking him the difficult questions. My own body has already started and I'm getting the message loud and clear, but I think it's important that I carry on a while longer. I still get the adrenalin rush before a game and it just about makes up for the punishment I soak up during it."

In addition to all that New Zealand know-how in the front and back rows, Brewer can also field a very useful second-row combination of Philippe Farner, the former Racing Club de Paris lock, and Mark Giacheri, the Sydney- born veteran of Italy's 1995 World Cup campaign. "Because of injuries, they hadn't played together until we got to Bedford," said Brewer. "They're good players and they make a big difference to a club who have only 17 or 18 blokes who can really stack up against the leading Premiership teams.

"I'm not saying we've turned the corner, just because we won last weekend. But we've certainly stretched out our necks, peered round the wall and seen what the road ahead looks like. I certainly think we can avoid relegation, especially if the politicians stay true to their word and stick to the terms of the Mayfair Agreement, which this club signed up to and continues to support. As far as I'm concerned, it's one down automatically and another in a play-off. We'll fight until we're blue in the face to keep that in place."

And Northampton, whose six wins from their last seven league outings have given them the sheen of title contenders? "Well, it's a major test for us, isn't it? They've tightened up their front five by recruiting Freddie Mendez at hooker and shifting Tim Rodber into the second row, and as a consequence they're playing a very physical game. But then, we've tightened up a bit ourselves. I hope they really come at us up front because we have a lot to offer back to them."

Ian McGeechan will know precisely how much; when Monkley produced his virtuoso display of Brit-bashing back home in Hamilton five and a half years ago, the Northampton coach was sitting in the front row of the Rugby Park stand. Suffice to say he regards it as the worst day of his Lions career.