Rugby Union: No reverse gear for Healey, Leicester's motor mouth

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The Independent Online
The Leicester Lip is back in overdrive after a disconcertingly quiet summer. Chris Hewett tries and fails to get a word in edgeways as a rejuvenated Austin Healey lifts the lid on life with the Tigers and offers a few considered opinions on the French, the All Blacks and just about everyone else.

Austin Healey is describing the warm, intimate, close-knit team spirit that makes Leicester the most envied club in English rugby. "Half the things we do in training are geared towards us kicking the crap out of each other. We're always at it. I was fighting with Richard Cockerill only last Monday; I quite enjoyed it, actually, although he's still in a strop for some strange reason. I don't know why. It was par for the course."

Perhaps Cockerill, the Tigers' hooker who won his first England cap in Argentina during the summer, will continue to brood until he gets even with his infuriatingly uppity clubmate. In which case, he faces a frustrating wait at the back of a very long queue. Healey dedicates more time to perfecting the art of the wind-up than any player since Brian Moore and, as a result, the rugby population is divided into two halves: those who plan to punch his lights out and those who have already tried.

His conversation mirrors his rugby almost exactly: it comes in rapid, staccato bursts, driven by a rich humour flecked with a mocking derision for those he considers deserving of nothing better. He is not so much super-confident as supra-confident, his self-belief bordering on the obsessive, his ambition limitless. If Healey ever achieves the standards he has set for himself, he will be Gareth Edwards and David Loveridge rolled into one.

Shoulder problems permitting, he will this afternoon face Toulouse in a hugely significant Heineken Cup match for the third time in 10 months. Typically, he has an opinion on the subject. "It's time for them to put up or shut up, isn't it? We've played them twice and beaten them twice. They've got a big reputation but they haven't done much away from home and if we play well, we'll beat them again. Nothing more certain.

"Psychologically, we've got it over them, haven't we? They might come to Welford Road with an unbelievable drive to bury this bogey team thing, but when they look up after 10 minutes and see we've got points on the board, the old doubts will be there again. Mind you, I can't help thinking that if they stopped giving away all the stupid penalties they concede every game, stopped all the gouging and biting and fighting that goes on with the French, they'd find it more difficult to lose than to win. They'd be marvellous, you know. They're really very gifted.

"To my mind, the French aren't taking the game as professionally as they should. The same goes for the Welsh. If someone punches you and it doesn't hurt too much, what earthly point is there in punching them back? All you achieve is a reversed penalty, miles of lost ground and, if you end up being cited, a lost wage packet into the bargain."

As we are on the subject of money, does Healey admit to a greater than usual weakness for the folding stuff? In his new book on last summer's Lions tour, Jeremy Guscott claims "Scally the Scouse" would do anything for cash. Any truth in that one, Austin? "I'll tell you one thing I'd never do for money," he says. "I would never, ever [long pause] read a book by Jerry Guscott.

"Let's face it, though. This is a pro game now and if you don't want to be fined, you don't turn up late for training. The old amateur ethos has gone for good and quite frankly, I don't want to retire from rugby, move into a council house and live on bread and water. I dearly want to play for England, not only to satisfy myself but because you get loads of money for it. I'd play for free if I had to because the prestige means more than anything else. But let's not pretend the money isn't worth having."

Healey's Test place is by no means secure, even though he finished last season's Five Nations' Championship chirping happily away at the heels of the England pack. A dodgy game in six feet of East London mud last May badly undermined his Lions campaign and, when he reached Sydney for the one-off Cook Cup match with Australia, he lost out to his friend and rival, Matt Dawson.

"I could have performed better in East London, definitely, although the people who expected miracles from me in South Africa were basing those expectations on hard grounds and perfect playing conditions. I thought I played well enough to make the side for the opening Test with the Boks, but the selectors obviously didn't agree. I was more upset about Australia, really, but the setback motivated me, I got into my club training nice and early and I'm mad keen to play against the Wallabies next month.

"The England set-up under Clive Woodward and the new regime is pretty relaxed, although that's probably because he hasn't named his first Test side yet. It'll be less relaxed when you have 15 very happy blokes and another 15 thoroughly pissed off with life. Still, we possess the talent to have a great season. We've got to be looking to see off Australia at home and, while New Zealand are a different proposition, I wouldn't even consider going out on the pitch unless I knew we could beat them. Eighty per cent of their greatness stems from the fact that the rest are scared to death of them. We need to put that sort of thinking behind us."

So you've never been fazed by anyone, Austin? Never left a dressing-room knowing full well that you are on a hiding to nothing? "Once," he admits. "When I was at Waterloo back in '93 and we'd drawn Bath in the cup. I remember thinking, `We'll never win this in a million years,' but when they turned up without Stuart Barnes and Ben Clarke I thought, `Well, perhaps there's just a glimmer.' As the game went on, that feeling became stronger and stronger. Finally, Guscott missed with a desperate and truly revolting attempt at a drop goal and I knew we were home and dry. It just proved that anything is possible."

Even a Leicester triumph in the Heineken Cup, the new holy grail for club sides the length and breadth of Europe? "Oh yes, we've got a potential cup-winning side. Actually, I blame myself to a large degree for our defeat against Brive in last season's final. If I'd tackled Sebastien Viars in the corner and stopped their opening try, it would have been a different game. Wait until I see him again. He handed me off three times and I ended up falling at his feet."

Shouldn't that be "grovelling" at his feet, Austin? You looked as though you were grovelling. "Don't be ridiculous," he snaps, the cheeky grin nowhere to be seen. "I never grovel."

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