Quins find few friends in battle to avoid mighty fall

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The Independent Online

It is just about possible to imagine a four-try victory for Harlequins over Sale at the Stoop Memorial Ground this afternoon, although it would have to be accompanied by the timely appearance of a dozen Saddleback pigs flying over the famous old ground en route to a mass landing at Heathrow. In the absence of sides of bacon performing aeronautical tricks in the south-west London sky, the men in the pastel-shaded shirts will probably kiss goodbye to their Premiership status - and in that event, those who accuse them of having their noses in the anti-relegation trough will raise a glass to their departure.

It is just about possible to imagine a four-try victory for Harlequins over Sale at the Stoop Memorial Ground this afternoon, although it would have to be accompanied by the timely appearance of a dozen Saddleback pigs flying over the famous old ground en route to a mass landing at Heathrow. In the absence of sides of bacon performing aeronautical tricks in the south-west London sky, the men in the pastel-shaded shirts will probably kiss goodbye to their Premiership status - and in that event, those who accuse them of having their noses in the anti-relegation trough will raise a glass to their departure.

Politically speaking, Quins have not won many popularity contests this season. Dark rumours of wheeler-dealering behind closed doors began to circulate the moment Worcester, who replaced Rotherham in the élite league last September, showed signs of winning enough matches to stay up, and it was widely alleged that the Londoners were the prime movers in a scheme to buy off the promotion contenders from National Division One and secure the status quo.

Of course, they are not alone in arguing that relegation should be sacrificed on the twin altars of commercial stability and improved player development. An overwhelming majority of Premiership chairmen take precisely this line, and not a single one of them would protest if the Rugby Football Union suddenly sanctioned a ring-fenced league at the top end of the English game. But Quins are none too popular on the rugby front either, having spent the entire season entangled in a web of self-imposed negativity.

At Leeds last Tuesday night, a match crucial to their survival, they played a brand of non-rugby that was as tactically naïve as it was conceptually offensive. Meanwhile, the Yorkshiremen played to win, just as they had against Leicester and Gloucester in their previous Premiership outings. A number of other sides have made damage limitation the centrepiece of their strategy over the last nine months, but Quins are the ones guilty of betraying their own heritage.

Say what you like about the Londoners - and many people take enormous pleasure in so doing - they once understood the notion of sporting adventure. They could not even spell the a-word these days. Ironically, their opponents this afternoon can lay fair claim to being the most dynamic attacking side in the country, not just because they boast the likes of Jason Robinson, Mark Cueto, Steve Hanley and Charlie Hodgson in their back line, but because they come armed with genuine athletes up front. Andrew Sheridan, Chris Jones and the remarkable Sébastien Chabal are among the most potent performers in the Premiership, and if they arrive in full warpaint this afternoon, Quins will not stand an earthly.

There again, strange things happen when desperation is the driver. Sale, in pursuit of a third-place finish that would earn them a shot at next season's Heineken Cup, have injury concerns over Hodgson, Chabal and both senior hookers, Sébastien Bruno and Andy Titterrell, and might conceivably turn up at half-cock. In that case, Quins may just squeeze out a victory, thereby dragging four rival clubs into the quicksand.

Worcester's match with Northampton at Sixways has a fascination all of its own, thanks to the peculiarities of Shane Drahm's position. The Northampton outside-half and goal-kicker has already agreed terms with Worcester for next season, which raises an obvious issue over his role in today's little rumble. Will he fancy a last-minute penalty to keep Northampton up at the expense of the club he will effectively join the moment the final whistle is blown? Really, you wouldn't wish it on your worst enemy.

This afternoon's business is the very stuff of sporting theatre. Leeds must beat Bath away to guarantee safety; Bath must win to secure a place in Europe . There is even something at stake in the far North-east, where Jonny Wilkinson makes his first start for Newcastle since shortly after the Battle of Hastings and hopes to prove himself fit for Lions duty in New Zealand this summer. Needless to say, the visitors, London Irish, must take something from the game to protect their own backsides.

Oh, and by the way... Leicester play Wasps at Welford Road today to decide who finishes top of the league. Thanks to the play-off system, no one is much interested. That's professional rugby for you.

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