Leeds look to higher ground

RUGBY LEAGUE: Doug Laughton tells Dave Hadfield about his club's plans to topple Wigan from their lofty position
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If it was any other side but Leeds pursuing Wigan into the business end of the season as the only team with a realistic chance of denying them any of the major prizes, British rugby league would be on its feet cheering them every yard of the way.

But it is Leeds and the ambivalence is deafening. Yes, we need a change, but does it have to be Leeds? One fat cat displaced by a potentially even fatter cat.

"I've sensed a real hatred of Leeds," says Doug Laughton, the Lancastrian who has guided the club to the brink of once more being able to compete for trophies. "It goes beyond the resentment of Wigan in Lancashire, which has only been around for the last couple of years because they have been so successful.

"It seems to go deeper than that with Leeds. But it's a good job for everyone that we're here, because otherwise the First Division would be dead by now."

There is no doubting the truth of that. Talk of a superleague next season has been forestalled by the emergence of one this season; it consists of two clubs, Wigan and Leeds.

Leeds have benefited over the last couple of years from having a clear objective - to displace Wigan as the most successful club in the country. However, there is still a long way to go.

"When we beat them in the league at Headingley in December, I said that we would have to play them another two or three times if we were going to win anything this season. If you are going to win anything, the fact is that you've got to beat Wigan to do it."

Needing Wigan to lose two games in order to sneak in on the blind side and win the championship stacks the odds against Leeds wresting that honour from its usual cabinet. Going back to Wembley to try to improve on last season's Challenge Cup final defeat by Wigan is a more realistic target, and relatively comfortable ties for both clubs this weekend - Wigan at Batley and Leeds at home to Ryedale-York - carry the promise of a collision at some stage.

"The trouble with Wembley is that it is like Wigan's home ground," Laughton said. "You know where I'd really like to play them? At Dublin in the Charity Shield, because that would mean we had won either the league or the cup."

With one former Wigan captain as coach, another - Ellery Hanley - as his assistant, and Alf Davies, a long-standing Wigan enthusiast as chief executive, Leeds have absorbed a good deal of that which they are striving to emulate.

Laughton points to Hanley's signing, controversial as it was four years ago to pay £250,000 for a player of 30, as a turning point for the club. Apart from Hanley's personal contribution, undiminished in terms of his leadership and certainly his try-scoring, Laughton believes his arrival had a symbolic significance.

"It showed we meant business, and made other players want to come here," he says. Plenty of players have come, including a solid nucleus from Laughton's former club, Widnes. Plenty have gone as well.

"I've shifted about 50 players since I've been here, and while you're doing that, people are going to question your judgement, ask whether you know what you're doing, and knife you in the back. It's a much happier ship now."

What Laughton does not say is that a good proportion of those discards were players he signed himself. Apart from Hanley, the policy of signing other Wigan veterans, such as Andy Goodway and Andy Gregory, was a failure. "But in the end, nobody remembers your bad signings," Laughton says.

Good signings, on the other hand, often made after lengthy consultation with Hanley, include Alan Tait from Widnes, the former All Black, Craig Innes, and on recent showings, this season's new recruits, George Mann and Esene Faimalo.

Alongside another New Zealander Gary Mercer, and the equally rugged Harvey Howard, Mann and Faimalo have helped to dispel one of the oldest truisms in the game - that Leeds go soft in the forwards when the going gets hard. "Our pack has been awesome at times this season," Laughton said.

Critics often claim that Laughton is a non-event as a coach, because he does little that others recognise as coaching. It is certainly true that he brings a minimalist philosophy to the job.

"I think coaching is a bit of a myth," he says. "My approach has always been to get the best players you can and let them get on with it. Your most important job then is to keep them happy."

What makes Laughton happiest is the emergence over the past couple of years of a crop of young players, the likes of which Headingley has never seen.

Even in their most successful years, Leeds' weakness has always been in the fostering of their own talent. A clear sign of the turning of the tide comes not just from the establishment of teenagers such as Francis Cummins and Graham Holroyd as regular first-teamers, but in the fact that Leeds will have eight players in France next weekend in the Under-21 and Academy squads.

"Those kids," says a coach whose energy in recruiting them has belied his popular image as one happiest with his feet up and a packet of cigarettes, "keep the place buzzing."

The next three months will show whether that buzz is a signal that the club really has tapped into a power source that could put them up where they long to be.