Never ending riddle of the flighty Quins

Despite two years of trouble-shooting, frustration lingers as Gallagher departs the enigmas
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The Independent Online

Given the precarious nature of the game, the best advice to anybody entering professional rugby is: don't give up your day job. After two years at Harlequins, which might seem like a lifetime, John Gallagher is returning to his teaching career, a case of welcome back Mr Chips.

His departure from the most enigmatic club in the land coincides with fresh rumours: Quins will go the way of Richmond and London Scottish, cut their losses and revert to the low-profile amateur scene or, with the intro- duction of franchises next season, merge with London Irish, their tenants at The Stoop in Twickenham.

"Every time I hear the stories I mention them to the people here and they laugh," Gallagher said. "Quins will continue to play Premiership rugby as far as I know, and I should know. The board have given us the green light to approach quality players, in NEC we have one of the big-gest sponsors in the league, and we have a brand name others would walk over hot coals for. And it's our stadium."

Last Wednesday, just before Quins beat a jaded North-ampton at The Stoop, a hawk cast its trained eye over the ground, an exercise in pest control. In the context of professional rugby, Gallagher is probably a dove.

"It's been a great experience," he said. "But I'd like to get some balance back into my life. I've got two young sons and I haven't seen a lot of them over the last couple of years."

The son of a London policeman (his parents have retired to their native Ireland), Gallagher also walked the beat before emigrating to New Zea-land where, with immaculate timing, he walked into the All Blacks side as an attacking full- back and helped them to win the inaugural World Cup in 1987. He had spells in rugby league with Leeds and the London Broncos before rejoining his old club Blackheath as a part-time captain-coach while still teaching at Colfe's School in south-east London.

Then he got a call from Zinzan Brooke, the great All Blacks warrior recruited by Quins as player-coach. Gallagher - his school post was kept open for him while he took what he describes as a sabbatical - was made director of rugby but had no coaching role. "I miss that," he said. "I was more a firefighter. When anything went wrong I had to sweep it up. There wasn't one big fire but lots of little ones."

Quins, who play Saracens at Vicarage Road tomorrow, have had a bad year. Having finished last season with a flourish to qualify for the Heineken Cup, they made an early European exit and their poor Premiership form means that next season they will play in the second-tier shield rather than the cup.

The expensive All Black dream ticket of Brooke/Gallagher has failed to deliver for a number of reasons. The recruitment was puzzling, to say the least. Zinzan himself is more an old bird than a spring chicken. His salary next season, when he hangs up his boots and takes over as head coach, with Richard Hill of England A looking after the backs, will be reduced from £200,000 to less than £80,000.

"There's been a big story in New Zealand that Zinnie is taking a massive pay cut to help the club," Gallagher said. "That's not the case at all. He joined as one of the most recognisable faces in world rugby and his salary reflected that. There were benefits to the club on and off the field. Now he wants a coaching career and is simply starting a different job for a different salary."

It could be argued that Will Carling was another who was past his sell-by date, yet he not only came out of retirement but was made captain and has hardly played. "Will did a good job for us towards the end of last season, he was enjoying his rugby and the players enjoyed his company," Gallagher said.

"He wanted another year, he wanted to be captain and, considering his England record, we agreed. We couldn't know he would suffer a series of injuries, and that's been the story of our season. We have used 44 players and not once have we fielded our strongest team. Not once. It may look like an ageing squad but we inherited rolling contracts which are only now coming to an end."

Quins lost stand-off Thierry Lacroix to Saracens and replaced him with the veteran Gareth Rees, who had been released by Wasps. "Thierry's a big-game player and we wanted to keep him, but Saracens offered him more money," Gallagher said. How much more? "I wouldn't know".

There are a variety of ways of side-stepping the wage cap of £1.8 million per squad (it will be reduced to £1.65m next season), and it is understood that although Lacroix moved across London for £120,000, he received a third of that in a lump payment in advance, and in the Saracens budget is recognised, understandably, as being on a salary of £80,000.

The Quins board, who have put up with heavy losses over the past three years, have indicated that they are prepared to pay the £1 million "membership" fee for the Tom Walkinshaw Super League plan. Some clubs prefer that to Rob Andrew's RFU blueprint, because it offers an immediate solution.

"There's too much money splashing around, which is disaffecting many," Gallagher said. "Despite the salary cap there are still inflated prices for players because some clubs abuse the system by paying up front before the budget deadline. It's been a frustrating two years at Quins, but I'd like to think that things are in place. When we arrived there was disarray. Now we've got an under-21 team and we are hoping to add an under-19 one, building an infrastructure for the future."

The 19-year-old Ben Gollings, who scored two tries against Northampton, is one of the first to graduate. "The game lost a lot of kids when teachers who took sports lessons had their allowances withdrawn," Gallagher said. "There's no route for boys from working-class backgrounds, and we are losing out on players who could provide a bit of an edge. Quins are still seen as the city slickers and we attract a lot more vitriol. It makes life more difficult than it should be."

Gallagher is not the only one who has been on a sabbatical. Keith Wood, who has been hooking for Munster and Ireland, returns to The Stoop in the summer. Jason Leonard is giving it another season, but Carling and John Schuster are not. "There will be new combinations," Gallagher added. "Some players want more money, some are moving on."

From being director of rugby and chief fire officer, he will become director of school sport. Apart from enjoying longer holidays, he will return to coaching: "I've already told Zinnie I'd like to introduce some of the boys to the Quins." By then the famous jerseys may look less like hair shirts.