Wake-up call for Quins in a league that never sleeps

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The Independent Online

The race is in its infancy, but already some competitors have fallen off the pace. Even at such an early stage, the distance between the haves and the have nots in the Zurich Premiership is worryingly wide.

Deep in hunting country, Worcester were engaged last week in what was described as a dogfight against Harle-quins at Sixways, a "must-win'' match for both clubs.

In the event, it was a one-sided dogfight, Quins conceding five tries to a team who the previous week had been run off their feet by Sale. It was an historic moment for Worcester, whose emblem is a shield portraying three pears, but they didn't have a lot to beat. Harlequins, one of the thoroughbreds of English rugby, appear to have gone pear-shaped with a capital "P".

At the end of last season, they qualified for the Heineken Cup by winning the Parker Pen Challenge Cup. They haven't won a sausage since, and qualifying for Europe's heavyweight competition is financially rewarding but physically punishing. It may be the last thing Quins need. After meeting Leicester in the Premiership at The Stoop next week, they play Munster and Castres in the Heineken. If they are still standing, they resume league action with a visit to Wasps.

It must have been particularly galling for the club to see Pat Sanderson in rampant form for Worcester after they had sold him down the M5. Mark Evans, the Quins chief executive and head coach, said that Worcester made Sanderson an offer he couldn't refuse and which the London club couldn't match. Another key man at Sixways was Andy Keast, a former Quins coach.

Evans has taken his eye off the ball. He can't coach and oversee the building of a new £8m stand at The Stoop. He has to choose between a suit and a tracksuit. Perhaps they should persuade Dick Best to rejoin the club.

There is a ruthlessness to the Premiership that does not allow any club, whatever their history, to stand still without getting run over. After winning National League One, Worcester recruited 14 players. Quins got Dafydd James from Wales and Jeremy Staunton from Ireland, neither of whom could be described as spring chickens, but failed to entice Agustin Pichot from France. Evans's expenditure has been frugal. Some clubs honour the salary cap, but the suspicion is that the majority do not, and there are 101 ways of massaging the figures. The best players go to the quick and the well-connected.

The competition in the Premiership is such that, in an all-time league table, only the usual suspects - Leicester, Wasps, Northampton, Glouc-ester and Bath - have managed a success rate on the field of 50 per cent or better. Leicester remain the model, returning a record turnover of £11.31m and an increase in profits of 115 per cent last season.

Rotherham, Worcester's promotion predecessors, won only two matches out of 44, West Hartlepool three out of 26, Bedford seven out of 48, London Scottish eight out of 26, and Bristol 39 out of 110. The best strike rate of the clubs who tasted temporary life in the Premiership was Richmond: they played 48 matches in the top flight, winning 23, drawing two, and losing 23. They had produced an extremely respectable balance sheet, on the playing field if not the bank, before Ashley Levett, their investor in chief, stopped investing. It wasn't relegation that did for Richmond, but administration.

The demise of Richmond and London Scottish should have left Quins in a position of considerable strength, particularly as the only London club regularly to play at home on a Saturday. Wasps, Saracens and London Irish, who all share grounds with football clubs, play as a general rule on the Sabbath.

The cynics are already predicting that, should Quins find themselves at the bottom come the end of April, the unthinkable would become the unsinkable, and somehow the club would avoid the drop. The favourite synopsis is that the champions of National League One would fail to meet the strict entry criteria for the Premiership.

This is not somethingEvans and his staff can begin to contemplate. In the past, the subject of promotion and relegation, one up, one down, has been close to Evans's heart. He has argued furiously against its introduction, stressing that no "business" should be put through such uncertainty. What is certain is that whoever is relegated will have no need for a new stand. Evans predicted that sooner or later the Premiership would evolve into two groups of seven, based on a conference system, but that looks a long way off.

The best rugby seen at The Stoop this season has come in the Zurich A League, where the Quins' second string have had some thumping wins. Local talent, as opposed to overseas, will have to be given its chance. In the meantime, Quins have to dog it out, but this is worse than asking an aristocrat to eat cake.

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