Elusive cohesion key for Quins

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On the face of it, Harlequins are taking one almighty gamble by sending a virgin line-up into the rampant atmosphere of a Tetley's Bitter Cup semi-final with Leicester before a sell-out audience at the Stoop Memorial Ground. But then, the pastel-shaded dandies of the London rugby scene have a long and cherished tradition of performing as though they do not know each other from Adam. Harlequins sides of the recent past have played together all season without giving the slightest hint of cohesion or common purpose.

On the face of it, Harlequins are taking one almighty gamble by sending a virgin line-up into the rampant atmosphere of a Tetley's Bitter Cup semi-final with Leicester before a sell-out audience at the Stoop Memorial Ground. But then, the pastel-shaded dandies of the London rugby scene have a long and cherished tradition of performing as though they do not know each other from Adam. Harlequins sides of the recent past have played together all season without giving the slightest hint of cohesion or common purpose.

They will need a sense of purpose this afternoon, that's for sure; their opponents may be without Martin Johnson, whose Neil Hamilton-like refusal to take a judgement lying down led to Thursday night's farcical episode in a Coventry hotel, but they still have enough big hitters to keep Don King in business. Yet Harlequins fancy this one, not least because a week as ghastly as the one they are in the process of suffering can only get better. This particular Quins combination may not have played together before, but the trauma of losing Zinzan Brooke as coach a mere five days ago may just have made a unit of 15 dyed-in-the-wool individuals.

Also, today's encounter is more do-or-die for the outsiders than for the molten-hot favourites. Leicester are so close to wrapping up the Premiership that the rest are playing for second place, so their qualification for next season's Heineken Cup is pretty much guaranteed. Who knows? They may even win this season's Heineken Cup. A decent performance in Pau next weekend will see them into the quarter-finals, and the Frenchmen have just lost four on the bounce. The Midlanders, on the other hand, have not lost four in succession since the last Ice Age.

For Harlequins, the Tetley's Bitter Cup is where it's at, their one realistic route to big-time European rugby next season. They are not good enough to win the European Shield, where the likes of Montferrand, Agen and Treviso - not to mention Newcastle - look strong. But the domestic cup may just do the trick for them, despite the fact that it is low on the pecking order for Heineken qualification. Assuming the end-of-season play-offs are dominated by the sides who finish in the top three of the Premiership, victory in the Tetley's may yet count for an awful lot.

Quins will not give much ground in the scrummage this afternoon - Jason Leonard and Keith Wood know a thing or two about set-piece play, while young Jon Dawson is learning fast - and their outside backs have been running in tries from distance all season. This one will be won and lost by the respective middle fives: if the inexperienced Matthew Powell can keep Austin Healey quiet at scrum-half, the Londoners will at least be in the game. Equally influential will be the scrap between the breakaways, David Wilson and Neil Back.

Wilson, the Quins captain, does not lose many contests that really matter. There again, neither does Back.

Up north, the Newcastle-Sale tie is one for the Flash Harry brigade, for neither pack could punch their way out of a paper bag. Rob Andrew, by some distance the most ruthless selector in British club rugby, has dumped Liam Botham in favour of the faster, more instinctive Michael Stephenson. "Liam will be unhappy," Andrew conceded yesterday, "but with everyone fit, we knew we would have problems settling on our back line."

Those anticipating some fun and games between Va'aiga Tuigamala and his protégé, Jason Robinson, will be disappointed that the former rugby league confrÿres have both been selected at left-wing, but Robinson's penchant for infield excursions will probably bring him into Inga's orbit sooner rather than later. Besides, there are more than enough one-on-one contests to whet the `appetite. Gary Armstrong squares up to his fellow Scottish international, Bryan Redpath, at scrum-half, and it will be fascinating to see how Newcastle's bristling young centres, Tom May and Jamie Noon, cut it in a pressurised environment.

Newcastle are obvious favourites, but Andrew is justifiably suspicious of opponents who play an off-beat style of rugby that occasionally proves irresistible. "It's a very close call; over the last month, Sale's form has probably been better than ours," he said. His Sale counterpart, Adrian Hadley, trod a similar path. "The Premiership is so tight that, given the right circumstances, any team can win any match," the Welshman agreed. "Having said that, we fall to pieces as soon as the television cameras turn up. I don't think we've won a broadcast game since 1997, but that has to change some time."

If this is indeed the last Tetley's Bitter Cup competition, it is going out in a degree of style. A Leicester-Newcastle final sounds about right, but never dismiss a Harlequin on knock-out day.

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