Howard's way has Leicester on the prowl for trophies

Johnson and Back are no longer stalking the Welford Road jungle but the Tigers are purring as their new coach prepares them for today's crucial meeting at Wasps

Over the last 10 days or so, he has politely told the Rugby Football Union to go hang itself over the increasingly fractious 11-week rest issue and has fielded one of the least experienced sides ever to play a Premiership match at Welford Road - and against Northampton on derby day, at that. Yet if he was any more relaxed about life at a high-achieving club shorn of two of its achievers-in-chief in Martin Johnson and Neil Back, he would be asleep. Howard does not have problems. He has solutions.

The common perception is that this should be a transitional season for the Tigers, for the very good reasons that Johnson and Back have retired, that the Welford Road kindergarten is producing young talent in such volume - eight England under-21 squad members, a quarter of the under-19 side, four under-18s - that the notion of a settled side is unrealistic, and that Howard is heading up a revamped back-room team featuring two gnarled reprobates from the pack, Back and Richard Cockerill, who have precious little coaching experience between them. Needless to say, the man who matters does not buy a word of it.

"Transitional? The idea of a transitional season makes no sense to me," he said this week after playing a breathlessly active part in Leicester's preparations for this afternoon's trip to Wasps, with whom they fought out a transfixing five-match series of matches in last term's Premiership and Heineken Cup.

"If a whole new coaching team had been brought in from outside, with no particular knowledge of the club and its methodology... well, maybe. But hell, it's not as if Neil and Richard don't understand the culture of the place. They were instrumental in creating it. And I played here too, remember. I think I understand how the place works, so this suggestion that we might settle for second best this year doesn't get much sympathy, I'm afraid."

Quite how much sympathy he can expect from Twickenham right now is a moot point. There was always likely to be a falling out between the union and the clubs over precisely when the British and Irish Lions tourists to New Zealand should resume active service in domestic rugby, but it was Howard, publicly and volubly supported by his chairman, Peter Tom, who was first out of the trenches in picking people a whole lot sooner than the powers-that-be were willing to accept. Or rather, he picked one person, who just happened to be Martin Corry, the England captain.

"I'm perfectly relaxed about it," he shrugged, after naming both Corry and his fellow back-row forward, Lewis Moody, in his side for today's game, entirely unintimidated by the RFU's insistence that neither should yet be out of bed, let alone be starting a game of this magnitude. (Moody was subsequently withdrawn, for disciplinary reasons).

"I'm not setting out to abuse the system, and I'm not trying to show up Andy Robinson [the England coach] as some people have suggested. I don't know where they get this stuff. My approach is to deal with my players as individuals, to talk to them, discuss things with them, be supportive of them and use them in the best interests of everyone involved. Where's the issue?

"Some people just want to play - Lewis begged and pleaded for some game time last week, so I put him on the bench for the second team and he had a run-around for 20 minutes. Some people, like Ollie Smith aren't being picked at the moment. Why? Because they're not ready. This isn't a difficult concept. I can't see the benefit of a catch-all system. Different players need different handling." Does, for instance, Jonny Wilkinson really need more rest, having been hors de combat for much of last season? Howard smiled. "Unless I'm mistaken," he said, "the bloke hasn't exactly been overplayed."

If last weekend was anything to go by, very few of Leicester's established big-hitters will be overplayed, either. Howard's selection for the Northampton fixture was unusually adventurous - Sam Vesty rather than Murphy at full-back; Tom Varndell rather than Austin Healey on the wing; Dan Hipkiss rather than Smith in midfield; Michael Holford and James Hamilton rather than Graham Rowntree and Ben Kay in the tight five. The result? A 32-point victory that denied the visitors so much as a single point by way of solace, despite their being armed with a certain Carlos Spencer.

"These were the people who had performed well in pre-season and had thrown down the gauntlet, so why not choose them?" the coach argued. "It's certainly not my intention to penalise people for going on the Lions tour, or going to the Churchill Cup with England, but I have 43 players on the staff, 28 or 29 of whom I genuinely believe in as people capable of performing at this level, and I don't want them hanging around here doing nothing much. I'm not holding myself up as some kind of Captain Cook, making great discoveries that no one else knows anything about, but I'm keen to use the resources available to me."

Perhaps the most valuable of those resources is Corry, who has replaced the barely replaceable Johnson as captain.

"It will take him some time, naturally, but Martin is completely on the level, very sound and perfectly equipped to keep me honest by standing up and saying what he thinks," Howard enthused. "I like that in a player. Some coaches don't, of course, and I came across one or two of them when I was playing. There again, I must have been a nightmare to handle. I was pretty fond of digging in my heels on all sorts of issues, and while I was right to do so on some occasions, I was plain wrong at other times.

"But you live and learn, don't you? I still have my opinions, but I'm better and holding myself in check these days. I have to be, especially at a big club like this, a club with such expectations. It's not the easiest job in the world, this coaching business, but I have to say that things have been pretty seamless so far. That is a compliment to my predecessor, John Wells. Sometimes, the mark of a coach is as much to do with the condition in which he leaves a club as what he achieves while he is there."

How, then, does Howard see the mark currently being left by Eddie Jones, whose reputation as head coach of the Wallabies is more subterranean than sky-high following Australia's recent whitewash in the Tri-Nations? The calls for Jones' head have been positively choral these last three weeks or so and an early resignation would inevitably result in Howard's name, along with those of his fellow Premiership-based Australian coaches - Michael Foley and Richard Graham at Bath, Brian Smith at London Irish - being fast-tracked into the frame.

"That little idea can be knocked on the head straight away," he said, adamantly. "I played for the Wallabies, and that's quite enough for me, thanks very much. I have absolutely no intention of becoming a career coach anywhere, least of all back home. I'll go back, for sure, but as a pharmacist, which is what I consider myself to be over and above anything to do with rugby. I put the professional side of my life on the back-burner to concentrate on my sport for a while, and it's been there for a long time now. But one day, probably not too far distant, I'll return to it and make some proper use of my qualifications."

And the Wallabies? Please tell us you're embarrassed, Pat. "No, I don't think I am. Look, they've had a bad trot, but the injury-count has been horrendous and some of their performances, even in defeat, have been pretty resourceful. I think you'll see some new faces in the team when they play England in November, and I'll watch that match with great interest because I see a lot of parallels between the two countries.

"Both Andy Robinson and Eddie Jones have to think some things through, realise exactly how long ago the 2003 World Cup was and start thinking in terms of the 2007 competition. If they make the right decisions now, both teams could be strong again by then."

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