The point that broke Harlequins' hearts

Harlequins 22 - Sale 23
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The Independent Online

This is as desperate as it gets. Harlequins threw 139 years of history and the odd hogshead of blood and sweat into their Premiership cause and it ended in tears. Quins were relegated to National League One yesterday, defeated by a single point, condemning them to a different world.

This is as desperate as it gets. Harlequins threw 139 years of history and the odd hogshead of blood and sweat into their Premiership cause and it ended in tears. Quins were relegated to National League One yesterday, defeated by a single point, condemning them to a different world.

Quins started the season with eight defeats from eight games, leaving them rooted to the bottom of the table, and they ended it in the same place. With one up, one down, Bristol, the winners of National League One, swapped places with Quins in the top flight. It is a touch ironic that near the end of a phenomenal team effort by Quins, they were dispatched to oblivion by a marvellous solo try. They were leading 22-16 with eight minutes to go when Mark Cueto displayed just why he is the best finisher, in more than one sense, in the Premiership with a stunning try from halfway. Before touching down at the posts he had left three defenders face down on the Stoop.

Charlie Hodgson's simple conversion put Sale ahead for the first time, although a minute from time Jeremy Staunton, with a long-range penalty, had a chance to spring Quins out of jail. His kick missed the target by inches.

"That was the most expensive miss in British rugby," said Mark Evans, the Quins' chief executive. "Jeremy's in bits, but we'll put him together."

Before the start, Evans had said: "This is a great club which has graced the top flight since the inception of leagues and it would be a grave, albeit not fatal, blow to relinquish our position. Outsiders may perceive Quins as being a club which lacks character and soul, but having been here for five years I know that the supporters, players and staff alike are as committed as any in the land."

Indeed, more passion, commitment and sheer bloody-mindedness was on display here than at any other time in the club's rich history - and that was just the crowd. They have never made so much noise, and Quins gave them plenty to cheer in a mesmerising first half, but at the death you could hear a pin drop, not to mention Quins.

Evans said it was grave but not fatal because Quins' inten-tion is to hold on to as many of their squad as they can, win National League One next season and go straight back up. Anything less would be a disaster, if it can't already be so described.

Nearing completion is a £7 million West Stand, which was built to host the likes of Leicester, not the Pertemps Bees. It now looks like a herd of white elephants. Dean Richards is supposed to be the club's new director of rugby and the All Black stand-off Andrew Mehrtens signed a letter of intent to come to the Stoop, but he may change his mind.

Paul Turner, the backs coach, has already agreed to join the Newport-Gwent Dragons. Quins will receive a parachute payment of £1.5m but they could lose twice that sum in Premiership income.

Quins were in a privileged position in that they were the only Premiership club to play in London, with Wasps (High Wycombe), London Irish (Reading) and Saracens (Watford) all out of town. Quins were also the only capital side to offer regular rugby on a Saturday. With the demise from the professional scene of Richmond and London Scottish, Quins might still have a captive audience, but they barely deserve it. Their recruitment has been suspect, their folly highlighted by the signing of the Springbok lock Geo Cronje, who never played because of a knee injury.

If Quins had shown the same urgency eight months ago as they showed in the first 40 minutes here, they would never have been in this position. Staunton sold a dummy to go over in the fourth minute, and 10 minutes later the Quins pack embarked on an unstoppable driving maul, for the hooker James Hayter to score.

Quins were 12-0 up, and the ground was rocking. They might have gone 15-0 up but a penalty was reversed in spite of the fact that Sébastien Chabal had sparked a near-riot with an assault on Will Greenwood.

Sale were having difficulty coping with the sheer ferocity of the challenge, but when they launched their first serious attack after 23 minutes the left wing Steve Hanley found himself on a huge overlap. Hodgson's conversion and the first of three penalties reduced Quins' lead to 12-10 before Staunton missed a relatively easy kick at goal.

Actually, under the circumstances, nothing was easy. In almost 10 minutes of first-half injury time the blue- bloods produced a try that even Adrian Stoop would have been proud of. Simon Keogh, fielding a high ball from Bryan Redpath, made a lovely run, linking up with George Harder on the right flank, and the latter slipped a spellbinding inside pass to Gavin Duffy. The full-back raced over unopposed.

Quins were holding a nine-point lead, and after Hodgson and Staunton had exchanged penalties, it was clear that the pressure was beginning to tell, on both sides. Sale kept knocking on, while Quins could barely win a scrum.

When Jim Evans conceded a penalty for flying into a ruck, Hodgson made no mistake to make it 22-16, and the packed house was still helping to lift their side when Cueto produced his devastating score.

Cueto, for some reason, was playing out of position at full-back. Given half a chance, Quins would have played the try-scorer anywhere at all.

There is no salary cap in National League One, so Quins will not be short of firepower. On the other hand, they will be sent to places like Coventry.

Evans has always argued against promotion and relegation. You can see why. "Do I feel under threat?" he said after the game. "The answer is no, but the total responsibility is mine."

Harlequins: G Duffy (T Williams, 72); G Harder, W Greenwood, M Deane, S Keogh (D James, 80); J Staunton, S So'oialo; M Worsley (C Jones, 50), J Hayter, J Dawson, R Winters, S Miall (J Evans, 50), N Easter (L Sherriff, 75), T Diprose, A Vos (capt).

Sale: M Cueto; O Ripol, J Robinson (capt), R Todd, S Hanley; C Hodgson, B Redpath; A Sheridan, S Bruno (A Titterrell, 45), B Stewart (S Turner, 50), IF Lobbe (C Jones, 45), D Schofield, J White, S Chabal (M Lund, 63), J Carter.

Referee: D Pearson (Northumberland).