Lance digs deep amid the storm

Headingley vents its anger as Leeds coach searches for answers to poor start to season
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The Independent Online

Nobody could say that Dean Lance's coaching career so far has been an easy ride, but it is only since he took over at Leeds that he has discovered what it is like working in a goldfish bowl.

Last season's Challenge Cup winners have lost all four of their Super League matches so far and during the most recent of those defeats, by St Helens last Friday, a section of the South Stand at Headingley chanted the name of his predecessor, Graham Murray.

"I didn't come here with any false expectations of being able to hide myself," Lance says. "I knew they were going to compare me with the good things Graham Murray had done. It's one of the great clubs and it has very high expectations."

Those expectations are being badly frustrated at the moment. Despite reaching the Challenge Cup final at Murrayfield at the end of this month, Leeds have become a relatively soft touch in Super League, their intimidating physical presence no longer looming over the opposition. "You can put your finger on a few things that are going wrong and everybody at this club is working very, very hard to put them right. There's something missing and we don't know what it is, but it's certainly not all doom and gloom."

For encouragement as he tries to put things right, Lance looks to Australia, to his own experiences there and those of others. "The Brisbane Broncos only won one of their first 10 matches last season and still went on to get a semi-final spot," he says. "I take a lot of inspiration from that."

On a more fundamental level, Lance has had experiences at previous clubs that make a losing run of four matches look like a mere hiccup. Both Perth and Adelaide closed down while he was in charge - a worry he does not have at Headingley. "I've had the experience at two clubs where things beyond my control shut them down. It puts it in perspective. The difference now is that these are things that are within my control."

But are they? Lance cannot wave a magic wand over Iestyn Harris' knee injury, which caused him to miss the St Helens defeat and will also keep him out at Warrington on Sunday. Nor can he guarantee to curb the impetuosity that gets key forwards like Adrian Morley and Barrie McDermott sent off and suspended. Leeds' excessive reliance on Harris would have been a problem for Murray, too, if he had lost him for important games, and the forwards walked at least as fine a line under him as they have under Lance.

All the same, the Leeds chief executive, Gary Hetherington, felt the need to embark on a detailed defence of the man he appointed after the St Helens defeat and this week issued an open letter to disgruntled fans via the local newspaper. His argument is that the rot - if rot it is - set in under Murray at the end of last season, when Leeds slid meekly out of the play-offs after promising so much all campaign, rather than under Lance this year.

"He is a man full of integrity, ability and enthusiasm and one not noted for backing off difficult situations," Hetherington said of Lance. "Graham was a very experienced coach whose own early career included the type of trauma and pressure that Dean now faces. I well remember receiving many letters from supporters criticising his appointment because he was not a big enough name for the club."

Hetherington's argument - and it is his own judgement that he is defending here - is that Lance will prove the doubters wrong in the same way as Murray. History shows, however, that the strain of proving themselves to the famously critical Leeds public has broken coaches in the past. The vociferous complaints from the terraces, the critical letters in the Yorkshire Evening Post, the bulging mailbag at Headingley - those are the things that have driven former coaches, some of them at least as battle-hardened as Lance, to distraction.

He is determined not to join those casualties, although the sounds coming out of the Leeds dressing-room after the St Helens match were those of a coach under pressure.

Appreciative as he is of Hetherington's public backing, Lance knows that only one thing will call off the hounds - and that is a win at Warrington, a match for which he at least has Morley back in harness. "He has such a presence on the pitch that he is bound to make a difference," Lance says. "It's a desperate game for both parties. There are very high expectations on both of us, so desperation is the word that comes to mind."