Rugby League: Lance plays Leeds' waiting game

Continuity is at heart of the Super League club's unconventional scheme to replace its coach with a successor already in place. By Dave Hadfield
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THERE HAS been one thing this week that defines the ground-breaking thoroughness with which Leeds are going about their business. It is not the way they beat Wigan last Friday, nor even the way they are preparing for an equally demanding match against Bradford tonight. It is the way they have next year's coach there watching them do it.

Next season, Graham Murray, who has guided them to such success during his short stay, will be with North Sydney - if there is a North Sydney, but that's another story. Instead, Dean Lance will be in charge, but the real revolution is that nothing else much will change.

The culture of rugby league, more than most sports, has been that, when a new coach arrives, he brings in new ideas, new back-room staff and new players. That was certainly the traditional and largely ineffective way of doing things at Headingley over the barren years.

That changed with the arrival of Murray last year. He is the first Leeds coach not to be given a big pot of money to spend on players and the first to guide them to any major trophy since the 1970s. The process will continue next year. Lance inherits the support staff intact and will only be able to make limited adjustments to the playing squad.

"It's continuity that we're aiming for," says the club's chief executive, Gary Hetherington. "Trying to get away from the business of everything else being ripped up when a new coach comes in. I suppose Liverpool [Football Club] were the model, although their style was to appoint internally."

As part of the smooth hand-over, Lance is spending a month with Leeds. It is the first time a coach-designate has been able to take such a close look at a club and Lance himself describes it as "a huge advantage".

With an internal appointment, like that of Matthew Elliott at Bradford or Andy Goodway this week at Wigan, a degree of continuity is built in. Leeds are the first, however, to bring a new coach in from outside and groom him under his predecessor.

"I've just been observing," says Lance. "Sitting back and learning. We discussed how it would work when I arrived. Graham's the coach; I'm just here as a visitor." A visitor with a deep interest in what he sees around him, though.

"It's obviously a very well managed club and very well coached. The players are happy and I've always thought that if the players are happy you're part of the way to having a winning team."

Keeping it a winning team will be Lance's challenge. "I know I've got a hard act to follow. I was told that by Leeds' supporters the other night. I won't be making too many changes but I won't be setting out to be a Graham Murray clone either."

One area in which he will not be able to make changes is in the back- room staff; they stay, because that was always part of the deal. It would seem to some coaches like starting the job with your hands tied. "When I was first appointed, I spoke to Graham and he has a huge wrap on the support staff. I've no problem with those guys, because I've seen them at work while I've been here and I can see why he rates them so highly. I'll have no drama with that at all."

The playing staff is a subtly different matter. There will be no old Leeds-style clear-out, but there are players such as Daryl Powell coming towards the end of their careers, one overseas player, Marc Glanville, retiring and three others - Richie Blackmore, Brad Godden and Martin Masella - whose fitness and retention for next season is in question.

That is where Lance's up-to-date knowledge of the Australian scene could well be useful. "There will be players available when they reduce from 17 teams to 14 and I have a few names in mind," he says. "But I've also seen the Academy and Alliance teams while I've been here and been very impressed with the quality of the young boys. It's very important that we keep that going as well."

Lance can only be here to assess all this now because he has no job in Australia. After a career as a compact, hard-working back-rower which saw him play in Grand Finals with Canberra, he joined the coaching staff at that highly successful club. His experiences as a head coach have been less auspicious, with both the Western Reds in Perth and the Adelaide Rams being sacrificed to Australia's political machinations after showing some progress on the playing front.

"I don't think I'll be taking this ship down with me," he says. To switch the analogy to dry land, he is not one of Napoleon's lucky generals; but, when he takes over in November, he will be a well-prepared one.