Evans keeps sense of balance in Stoop juggling act

The Harlequins coach and chief executive is keen to expand but a poor start to the season could bring relegation and financial disaster. Chris Hewett reports
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The Independent Online

The next big event at the Stoop Memorial Ground takes place on Friday, a "jester night" featuring two comedians and an impressionist. The performers may well struggle for an audience, partly because few Harlequins supporters feel like laughing just at the moment, and partly because many of them believe they have been watching a form of stand-up - albeit a particularly unfunny one - from the moment the season started a little over a month ago. They are certainly familiar with the sight of 15 jokers in daft shirts impersonating a rugby team.

The next big event at the Stoop Memorial Ground takes place on Friday, a "jester night" featuring two comedians and an impressionist. The performers may well struggle for an audience, partly because few Harlequins supporters feel like laughing just at the moment, and partly because many of them believe they have been watching a form of stand-up - albeit a particularly unfunny one - from the moment the season started a little over a month ago. They are certainly familiar with the sight of 15 jokers in daft shirts impersonating a rugby team.

Harlequins are "nought from four", to use the common coaching parlance, and if they fail to win at Worcester this afternoon, they could be nought from plenty more by the time anything resembling a victory emerges from the metropolitan gloaming.

Over the next few weeks, both Leicester and Wasps are due in South-west London along with the white-hot Frenchmen of Castres, while Quins must travel to table-topping Sale and - God help them - Munster, a prospect that reduces the cleansing of the Augean stables to piece-of-cake status. Thanks a bunch, as Hercules might have said to Apollo.

It is ridiculously premature to trot out the c-word, "crisis", and start fretting about possible relegation and the dire consequences that would follow such a calamity. But the club's trendy website is full of such chatter, all the same. "The Worcester game is now absolutely crucial," one contributor says. "It shouldn't be like this so early." Another snippet: "Saturday will show whether or not we need the new west stand" - a reference to the £8m project about to be launched by the Harlequin hierarchy, a central plank in their plan to establish the club as the major sporting attraction in this highly affluent area of the capital.

And inevitably, there is criticism of the personal kind, aimed largely at the coaches, who always seem to cop it before anyone considers firing a shot at the players. First among those coaches is Mark Evans, who combines his tracksuit duties with the job of chief executive - a uniquely challenging role and, perhaps mercifully, one that leaves him precious little time to dabble around on the web.

Evans is smart, acutely sensitive to the biorhythms of the professional club game, and he knew he had it coming to him. However, to be forearmed is not to be rendered invulnerable.

"I've been obsessed with this game since I was six years old, and I've been reading about it almost as long, but I don't read anything now because it saps my energy," he admitted this week. "I understand how our supporters feel. They are wounded, upset, angry. I'm all of those things, too; when we lose the way we're losing at the moment, I feel sick in the pit of my stomach, and criticism on top of that makes it worse.

"But the fans have a perfect right to demand better than they've seen over the first four matches and anyway, I much prefer anger and abuse to apathetic acceptance. At least we have a fan-base - 5,000 season ticket-holders, for starters. There was a time when there was no one here to sound off about anything."

Evans is right about that much. Since joining Quins from Saracens a little over four years ago, he has seen punters fill the stands in numbers unprecedented in the 138-year history of the club. He has also landed a couple of European trophies, which always helps.

But with a system of semi-automatic relegation in place - the survival of the Premiership's bottom club depends wholly on the inability of the National League One champions to meet promotion criteria, primarily covering stadium facilities - there is no such thing as solid ground beneath his feet, or anyone else's feet come to that. All top-flight teams tread gingerly on a thin crust concealing a yawning chasm of financial implosion. Relegation equals bankruptcy, or something uncomfortably close to it.

Which is why Harlequins, even at this stage of the campaign, see today's visit to Sixways as a defining moment. "Four or five years ago, you could look at West Hartlepool or Bedford and tell yourself, 'Even if everything goes wrong and we play really badly this season, they'll keep us up'," Evans said. "It doesn't work like that now.

"Worcester are an exceptionally well organised team, with good players in a lot of positions, and if a side goes there below full strength or performs poorly, they stand every chance of being beaten. That is the short-term pressure under which I operate. The important thing is not to let short-termism obscure the bigger picture and deflect me from what I'm trying to do at this club."

To be sure, Evans' "bigger picture" is painted on an unusually large canvas. "Rugby is the No 1 sport in this area of London," he said. "But it was always a participation sport; there is no history of union as a spectator sport around here. We've been successful in addressing that in recent times, to the extent that we've outgrown what we have at the Stoop.

"The hospitality boxes are full, so we can't drive more revenue via that route, and the ground capacity is too small. This is why we intend to invest a substantial sum in the new stand, which would take us up to 12,300.

"We're not doing it because there is no potential for growth, obviously. The potential is huge. We don't have the advantage of a captive local community, like Leicester or Northampton, but we're not in the really difficult situation of being the third sport in town, like Leeds.

"I am seriously excited about where Quins could find themselves in three years' time, and I make no secret of the fact that my primary interest is in leading the development of this club in the broadest sense. But I'm also heading up the coaching, and that leaves me performing a fairly challenging juggling act."

There lies the rub. Quins supporters are beginning to wonder aloud whether it is practical, or even possible, for one man to run the show on the pitch as well as off it. Evans may not be reading much, but he hears plenty. He hears the calls for Andre Vos, the captain, to take on a coaching role; for Jason Leonard - newly retired and "picking his bum doing nothing", as one website correspondent politely puts it - to get involved with the forwards; for a root-and-branch restructuring of the back-room team that would allow Evans himself to concentrate on the running of the club, and leave the running of the team to someone else.

"It's the first thing people say when we lose a few matches - that I'm spreading myself too thinly, that I've taken on too much," he said. "It's inevitable. But no one moaned when I took over the preparation and selection of the side from Zinzan Brooke and helped dig us out of a hole, and no one complained when I did the same two and a half years ago and ended up going to two cup finals.

"My whole background is in coaching - it's where I come from, basically - and as I'm not one of nature's dabblers, I'm not interested in doing the rugby side as a non-coaching, non-selecting organiser. You can't be half-pregnant, can you? One bloke has to run the show, and at the moment it's down to me. I think I've done OK, with the resources available."

Yet if Evans is convinced of his own ability to keep all the balls in the air for all of the time, he half-wonders whether he has made a miscalculation or two on the personnel front. "I came into this competition convinced we had a stronger side than last season, and I must confess that I didn't see these results coming," he acknowledged.

"Maybe we're too young, too inexperienced in the ways of Premiership rugby. We lost Jason [Leonard] and Pat Sanderson, Paul Burke and Bill Davison, for various reasons - Jason was always going to pack it in, while Pat went to Worcester on a salary we couldn't match - and we're still coming to terms with it.

"But I actually don't see it as the end of the world if people leave here for big money, because we've taken a firm decision that we won't operate at a loss. We won't fund deficits year after year, with the same bloke writing the same cheque to help us fire-fight our way through another season. That is as it should be.

"We are in the process of turning what was a terrible team with terrible facilities into something completely different, while staying in a league alongside teams who are a lot further down the road than us.

"We have to keep the vision clear, irrespective of results. It's a doddle when things are going well, of course, but when things are going badly, it's a difficult trick to pull off. What we need is a win at Worcester. That would remove some of the heat from the situation."

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