03/05/02.Beaten just once in the League and at a time when they had already secured their passage to the higher level, Edward Newman cannot see Belfast Harlequins lose on Saturday.
Judging by their juggernaut season slicing most Division two defences to pieces, Belfast Harlequins on paper look unbeatable as their unstoppable march to Division One proved this season. Under the coaching guidance of South African born Andre Bester, the Ormeau side’s style of total rugby has
caught the imagination of rugby lovers all over Ireland.
On their tour to promotion this season, Harlequins – an amalgamation of NIFC and Collegians – have scored a whopping 549 points and averaged five tries per game. They garnered a staggering 12 bonus points during a season that
saw them beat all four Ulster clubs and all seven Munster clubs in Division Two. The only side that upset their all-conquering roller-coaster show was Barnhall, and that day Bester rested many of his bigger names.
On their last League visit to lowly Sunday’s Well, Bester’s side ran in nine
tries in exhibition rugby that had everyone on their feet at he finish.
Bester, a management consultant by profession, has transformed the club on the playing field and in off-the-field activities as well. After last year’s demotion from the upper tier of AIL rugby, the former Springbok A player
quickly set about the task of rebuilding a club low in morale and low in finances.
They have a huge restructuring in process, gates are bigger and Harlequins are attracting all the right players as well. With fellow South African Rhys Botha running in sixteen tries alone this season coupled with the talents of former Irish international Niall Malone, Harlequins look like a side a in a hurry to make it back to Lansdowne in 2003 to claim the Division One title. It’s not about outside their remit or abilities judging by the structures they have in place for a very bright and fruitful future. Harlequins finished on 68 points, and will be joined in Division One next year by tomorrow’s combatants, UL-Bohemians who had a taxing time aiming for that second automatic promotion spot towards the end of the season. Barnhall finished with the same number of points on 50, but the Limerick side edged them out through superior points difference.
UL-Bohs structures are a credit to the burgeoning University game, which is beginning to flourish again thanks to the huge efforts made by UCD (Division One), UCC (Division Two) and Trinity, who have just gained promotion to Division Two. Bohemians used be a huge force in Munster rugby – Bill “Wigs” Mulcahy and the late Tom Cleary amongst their finest at one time, but after amalgamating with UL, their fortunes have been on the up and under the guidance of skipper Liam O’ Connell should provide formidable opposition to high-flying Harlequins.
When the sides met in the league, UL-Bohs were at the wrong end of a 3-52 drubbing in Belfast, but have had a good record in the league this year winning eleven games. But tomorrow’s final should provide a real appetiser for the main course with two young, gifted attack -orientated sides willing to indulge in some open rugby.
However Harlequins want to show the country that they are the ‘real’ champions of Division Two, and give spectators from Cork Con and Shannon
plenty to mull over for the 2002/2003 league campaign.
UL BOHEMIANS: R Desmond or C Gilligan; K Matthews, M McPhail, C Finn, A Coetzee; I Costello, L O’Connell; M Harty, G Ryan, C Neilan, J O’Connell (capt), B Dineen, C Fitzgerald, A Hartigan, A O’Gorman. Replacements (from): C Gilligan or C Garvey), M Roche, J Danagher, K Flanagan, G Flanagan, S Browne, J O’Neill, P Fitzgerald.
BELFAST HARLEQUINS: N Malone; R Collins, A Lowe, R Botha, J Lowe; A Derwin, S Clancy; C Keown, R Weir, D Scott (capt), C Beukes, A Emerson, M Higginson, C McCarey, N Best. Replacements: M Finlay, A Park, D Fitzpatrick, N Hanna, A Dougan, D Irwin.
How both teams got here:
AIB Division Two Play-Offs: Belfast Harlequins 38-8 Old Crescent: UL-Bohemians 33-17 Barnhall.
Verdict: Belfast Harlequins.