Pastel dandies bruised by Pienaar's princes

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The Independent Online

A significant proportion of the existing Harlequins squad may find themselves on part-time contracts next season, which is pretty worrying from their point of view: after all, few people relish the prospect of doubling their work load. Having qualified for the Heineken Cup with a tremendous late rush this time last year, the pastel-shaded dandies of the Premiership have barely clocked on during the eight months of the current campaign. True to form, it was almost as if they had downed tools on the way to Vicarage Road yesterday, for they were nowhere to be seen for three-quarters of the match.

While they enjoyed a big 10 minutes at the end, their contribution to the first 70 was microscopic. Saracens hit the half-century mark inside an hour - the visitors did not have the foggiest how to cope with Darragh O'Mahony's predatory work on the left wing, or how to neutralise Rob Thirlby's buccaneering rampages from deep - and had it not been for the swathe of substitutions late on, they might easily have conceded 70. "Maybe the changes had an effect on us," admitted François Pienaar, Sarries' head cook and bottle-washer.

According to the Quins' hierarchy, between 10 and 15 players will leave The Stoop at the end of the season with their P45s tucked inside their kit bags.

On this evidence, Zinzan Brooke, the player-coach, is showing a degree of leniency wholly at odds with his All Black upbringing. The great underachievers of the English game showed no stomach for the fight yesterday and their conciliatory approach allowed their opponents to enhance their claims on a Heineken spot next term. The likes of Bristol and London Irish, who also covet a place among the European élite, will feel short-changed by anything less than a total clear-out.

Not that Saracens would be in any way unworthy of Heineken Cup qualification. Thirlby is probably the brightest young star in the back-line firmament, they have a front five that positively oozes evil intent and their back row remains a state-of-the-art unit, especially when Richard Hill turns up the heat to full blast as he did yesterday. And then there is Kyran Bracken, keen to make up for lost time at scrum-half. Injured in Australia last summer and only recently returned to full fitness, rugby's most battle-scarred pin-up looked as sharp as you like on his home comeback; if he can stay in one piece for longer than 10 minutes, he will soon have Matt Dawson in his international sights.

Bracken was the instigator of much of Saracens' best work and although Pienaar believes he should develop a greater sense of self-preservation and stop mixing it with the forwards, his physical commitment around the rucks and mauls makes him a handful for opposing loose forwards. By the time he called it a day in the final quarter, Saracens were out of sight. Had he been available from the start of the season, his club might well be chasing something more tangible than fifth in the league.

Thirlby, however, was the pick of the black-shirted tribe yesterday; his round-the-houses try in the opening minute of the second half was among the more remarkable solo efforts of the age and he made all the running for scores by O'Mahony and Hill either side of the break. Maybe Saracens do not need to spend a fortune on Tim Horan and Thomas Castaignÿde, their recruitment targets, after all; certainly, they would have seen off this lamentable Harlequins vintage with Tiny Tim and Thomas the Tank Engine in their back division.

Saracens: Tries O'Mahony 3, White, Thirlby, Hill, Constable; Conversions Lacroix 4, Thirlby 2; Penalty Lacroix. Harlequins: Tries Daniel, Barnes.

Saracens: R Thirlby; R Constable, B Johnston (B Sparg, 69), K Sorrell, D O'Mahony; T Lacroix (M Leek, 52), K Bracken (N Walshe, 70); D Flatman (P Wallace, 60), G Chuter (M Cairns, 48), J White, W Davison (K Roche, 65), D Grewcock, K Chesney, R Hill (B Cole, 65), A Diprose (capt).

Harlequins: B Gollings (G Delmotte, 51); J Keyter, D Officer (D O'Leary, 65), N Greenstock, B Daniel; R Liley, P Richards (H Harries, 65); D Barnes, C Ridgway (S Mitchell, 70), J Leonard, G Morgan, G Llewellyn (capt), R Jenkins, A Leach (C Sheasby, 60), P Sanderson.

Referee: C White (Cheltenham).