Richards and Mehrtens the rebuilders

Life after the drop: Bulk of squad expected to stand by stricken Quins to link up with Tigers legend and Kiwi great
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The Independent Online

The climax to the regular programme of the Premiership last week proved, above all, that promotion/relegation is a show-stopper, and should be set in stone. Without a trap door, the drama has no suspense.

The climax to the regular programme of the Premiership last week proved, above all, that promotion/relegation is a show-stopper, and should be set in stone. Without a trap door, the drama has no suspense.

Most investors are terrified of the drop, and with good reason. Mark Evans, the chief executive of relegated Harle-quins, has always argued against one up, one down on the basis that you cannot develop a business in the face of such an uncertain future. Evans, however, should be wary of comparing professional rugby to running a company. If a business fails, the chief exec could expect to get the bullet.

The Stoop's new West Stand, under construction, boasts a huge banner declaring: "A New Era''. It is, but in the most unexpected way. Quins, from penthouse to trailer park, will begin life in National League One next season, away to Pertemps Bees. Everyone will want to kick the light blue, magenta, chocolate, French grey, light green and black shirt out of them, but Quins have no intention of staying down. They say they are in a position to show that there is life after relegation.

In previous years, most of the fall guys found themselves in a financial crisis. Squads were disbanded, budgets slashed and spectators disappeared; far from bouncing straight back up, they were in freefall.

Dean Richards, who led Leicester to back-to-back triumphs in the Heineken Cup, signed a contract to join the west London club as their director of rugby the day before their momentous defeat by Sale which sent them down. Richards, who has bought a house in Surrey, is honouring his commitment to the club after an unhappy detour with Grenoble. He did not hit it off with the players, and the French club face relegation. Richards will attend training sessions, but more in the role of a football manager.

Andrew Mehrtens, the former All Blacks stand-off, is also expected to fulfil his obligation to Quins. Paul Turner left the Stoop last week to take over at the Newport-Gwent Dragons, and it is no secret that he did not see eye to eye with Evans, who tried to combine the roles of chief executive and head coach, wearing a pinstripe one day, a tracksuit the next.

It is possible that Mehrtens and the England centre Will Greenwood will take over the coaching of the backs, while John Kingston will continue to supervise the forwards. This would be the most high-powered coaching team in the history of National League One.

Even before last week's series of meetings at the club, Dafydd James, a Lion from Wales who joined last year, was heading for Llanelli. The wings Ugo Monye, an England sevens star with prospects, and George Harder have been talking to Bath but the majority, including the senior professionals in Greenwood, the captain, Andre Vos, and the vice-captain, Tony Diprose, are prepared to lead Quins back to the promised land.

Tomorrow Richards is expected to attend a press conference at the Stoop, where the club will declare their ambitions for the 2005-06 season. There will be a considerable drop in revenue, not least from television income and sponsorship, but the parachute payment from the Premiership is £1.5 million and private investors say they are prepared to put their hands in their pockets.

Even so, it seems inconceivable that the players will not be asked to take a pay cut. Probably fewer than half-a-dozen will leave, and anybody who wants out but whom the club wishes to retain will be reminded of their contractual obligations. The view of the board is that if the squad stick together, the audience clicking the knitting needles around the guillotine will see no further letting of the blue bloods. Office staff who will lose their jobs are being told to treat it as a sabbatical: they will be re-employed when Quins go back up.

Because of the club's reduced status, the price of season tickets has been reduced, but more than 1,000 members who had already paid say they are prepared to forego a refund. With Wasps, Saracens and London Irish all playing outside London, and usually on a Sunday, rugby followers in the capital are not spoilt for choice on a Saturday afternoon. Next season they can look forward to a west London derby - Quins v London Welsh. It should be a one-sided affair. Nobody in National League One will come close to Quins' budget.

A few months ago Quins were playing in the Heineken Cup, the highlight of their campaign being two narrow losses to Munster. Next season, bring on Sedgley Park. Officials of the Stoop had to consult a road atlas to find out where on earth the place was.

So how did it come to this? In some respects the game is moving closer to football - a few spectators last week were shouting "Evans out'' - and shrewd recruitment is vital. Evans is nothing if not a shrewd operator, but at the end of last season he allowed Pat Sanderson to become a hero at Worcester and Chris Bell one at Leeds, and after the retirements of Jason Leonard and Bill Davison, he found his pack underpowered.

Worse still, they were exposed at half-back. The scrum-halves Scott Bemand and Matt Powell joined Leic-ester and Worcester respectively and the stand-off Paul Burke, whose goal-kicking would probably have kept Quins up, left for Munster. Burke wanted a two-year contract but was offered 12 months. On average there have been nearly 10 departures a year over the past four years. Only after losing eight games did Quins decide to spend some money, and the most ludicrous signing was that of Geo Cronje, the South African lock, who wore the jersey to have his photograph taken but never played because of a knee injury.

Meanwhile, work continues on the West Stand, partly funded by a grant from Sport England. It will have 3,850 covered seats, a members' bar, club shop, corporate hospitality boxes, changing rooms and media centre. If Quins win promotion they will have no trouble meeting the criteria. Next season, Evans will not be opposed to one up, one down.

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