Grand planner takes back seat to Evans' fine vision

 

Club rugby chief executives do not, by and large, command a high profile in the sport: unlike the banking and retail versions, they are rarely presented in the public prints as alpha-male superheroes, or hopeless incompetents, or thoroughgoing crooks.

Not even the appearance of Mark McCafferty in a hospitality box at the Stoop after three days of ructions over his negotiating of a £152m contract with a new broadcaster could send eyebrows soaring skywards or set tongues wagging, although there may well come a point over the next few weeks when he grows sick and tired of seeing his name in lights.

Much has been said and written about the CEO of Premiership Rugby, the umbrella organisation of England's top-flight teams, since the sudden announcement of the BT Vision deal last Wednesday, not all of it terribly accurate.

Indeed, the inaccuracies led to McCafferty receiving that rarest of rarities: a chairman's vote of confidence, from Quentin Smith of PR, that appeared genuinely sincere. As this was ratified by a dozen other chairmen, all of whom expressed bemusement – not to mention anger – at suggestions that their most senior managerial figure was in any way under pressure, he does not expect to find himself in P45 territory in the foreseeable future.

"I think the initial exchange of views will be quite difficult: there's a lot of emotion involved," he said, referring to the discussions over an English-driven, root-and-branch restructuring of the world's best club tournament, the Heineken Cup – talks that begin in Dublin tomorrow, with McCafferty and the Bath owner, Bruce Craig, in attendance.

"But we believe we can demonstrate that we've put together something that works for everyone involved. The mistake some people are making is that they think our preferred option is to walk away from the Heineken Cup. Actually, we want to play in an improved Heineken Cup."

McCafferty knows he is performing a high-wire act – that there is a great deal at stake here, both commercially and politically. Under the circumstances, he must have been cheered by Harlequins' bonus-point 37-14 win over Sale, their rugby being shot through with risk, albeit risk of the calculated variety. With their increasingly authoritative tight- forward unit and an outside-half in Nick Evans who rarely, if ever, fails to deliver, they had everything they needed by way of a safety net. Evans, the former All Black playmaker, is the human equivalent of all those BT Vision millions already set aside in an account marked "Premiership only".

Sale took their fair share of risks too: for a start, they played Danny Cipriani at outside-half – a Danny Cipriani wearing silver boots so bright he dared not look down for fear of being blinded by the reflection. There were flashes of the old swagger, including a lovely running cut-out pass off the right hand and an exquisite reverse-angled attacking kick to touch, but, without a tight-forward unit worth a light, his risks were a whole lot riskier than those taken by Evans. In the great debate between two fine No 10s, Cipriani was the one who walked naked into the conference chamber.

Some of the rugby played by the reigning champions would have been recognised by a spectator returning to the Stoop after a 10-year absence. The Londoners went about their work at a fierce, unforgiving tempo and created broken-field opportunities galore with a series of quick line-outs, tap-and-go scurries, smart extra passes and clever little offloads designed to dismantle the accepted structures of the union game – their own, as well as those of the opposition. Nick Easter, the No 8 discarded by England at the start of the year, was central to this. In one second-half attack, he contributed no fewer than four close-quarter flicks, each of which wrong-footed a Sale defence that was not up to much in the first place.

The less familiar side of Quins, apparent only over the last couple of seasons, has more to do with the sweatshop than the artist's studio. With Joe the Mohican, also known as Joe Marler, fast developing into a loose-head prop of serious significance, they are now able to throw their weight around in the arm-wrestle. Marler's closest partner, the hooker Joe Gray, may be one of those to benefit. In front of the England forwards coach, Graham Rowntree, he confirmed his candidacy for the spare place in the Test squad with an energetic display underpinned by a sound scrummaging performance and some unerring marksmanship at the line-out.

And then there is the defence, constructed by the former England back-rower Tony Diprose, who was never mistaken, least of all by himself, for a heavy-hitting monster of the Lawrence Dallaglio variety. "People like to remember Tony as a ball-playing No 8, but he's a heck of a hard man on these fellas when it comes to organising what they do when they don't have the ball," said Conor O'Shea, the Quins rugby director.

And so it appeared. Sale broke the home side open only once, when Richie Vernon escaped for a try at the flag. Vernon's effort did not add up to much in the grand scheme of things: it cancelled out Ugo Monye's early try, but when Jordan Turner-Hall touched down before the interval, the writing was on the wall in block capitals.

Who knows? On this form, Quins might even play their way to a first Heineken Cup final next May. Which would be nice, while the tournament lasts. "I can't control any of this so it doesn't impact on me," said O'Shea when asked for his view of this latest round of committee-room confrontation. "What I do know is that it will be sorted." Did McCafferty share this optimism? Difficult to say. By then, he was nowhere to be seen.

Harlequins: Tries Monye, Turner-Hall, Robson, Brown; Conversions Evans 4; Penalties Evans 3. Sale: Try Vernon; Penalties Cipriani 2.

Harlequins M Brown; T Williams, G Lowe (M Hopper 68), J Turner-Hall, U Monye; N Evans, D Care (K Dickson 57); J Marler, J Gray, J Johnston, C Matthews, G Robson, T Guest (M Fa'asavalu 56), C Robshaw (capt), N Easter.

Sale R Miller; T Brady, J Leota, S Tuitupou, M Cueto; D Cipriani (N MacLeod 71), D Peel (W Cliff 20-31 and 59); E Lewis-Roberts (A Dickinson 63), J Ward, V Cobilas (H Thomas 47), R Gray (F McKenzie 75), K Myall, J Gaskell (M Easter 49), D Seymour (capt), R Vernon.

Referee T Wigglesworth (Yorkshire).

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