Rugby Union: England bank on their slide ruler

Dave Hadfield finds Phil Larder has created a new code of defence
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The Independent Online
IT ISN'T every job in rugby that gives you the illusion of being 17 years younger, but that has been the experience of Phil Larder. The former Great Britain rugby league coach, now the defensive specialist in Clive Woodward's backroom staff for England, has the feeling of having been this way before.

"It's like going back in time," he said after England's campaign had ended with that epic defeat by Wales at Wembley. "In 1982, I was director of coaching at the Rugby League when we found out just how far we were behind the southern hemisphere and I was the one sent over there on a learning curve.

"There were differences in their power and fitness, but the major thing was their defence. At the time, we didn't do any defensive work at any club. The Australians had picked it all up from American football. I brought those ideas back here and once you got coaches like Graham Lowe and Ross Strudwick at clubs here, players were getting it from both angles."

Exactly the same process, Larder believes, is happening in union. "I've practically found the same thing. Before the Lions tour, few clubs and players put any concentration on defence, so what I'm doing now with the national team is very similar to what I was doing in '82."

Despite that little hiccup at the end of the game against Wales - when Tim Rodber was penalised for a tackle that Larder is adamant was perfectly legitimate in both codes - the medicine is working. So well, in fact, that England treat Larder like a guilty secret, playing down his input as defensive coach for fear that everyone will want one. "I think it all started on the Lions tour, because Fran Cotton was impressed with the input from the likes of Allan Bateman, Scott Gibbs and the other guys who had spent time in league - particularly their contribution in defence."

Cotton and Woodward put their heads together and Larder, who had been recently sacked by the Sheffield Eagles, was available, initially on a consultancy basis, to help out.

Although looked at through league eyes, rugby union, even at international level, still seems to provide plenty of evidence to support the theory that its players simply do not know how to tackle, Larder says there is far more to his role than merely grafting league techniques on to union players. "Obviously, you start by working with guys on their technique," he said. "The principles of the games are very similar, but after that union is vastly different."

England, under Larder's tuition, use a modified version of a rugby league sliding defence. "But in league, with the exception of the first couple of tackles after a scrum, everyone defends from their same place in the line.

"In union, you can't possibly do that, because of the variety of ways in which the ball can come back into play. It's far more complex. I've found it absolutely intriguing. The problems you have to overcome in organising your defence are far more varied and difficult."

It took him, he says, a year to educate himself sufficiently to be able to tackle those issues. It was something of a crash course, starting at his local club, Huddersfield YMCA, and also involving time spent with Leicester and Wasps, before going on the summer tour with England. "Then I began to understand the game, and the different problems you have to solve."

Although some of what he has had to convey since then has been an alien concept, Larder said that it had been well received by a squad that includes a couple of former "leaguies" in Barrie-Jon Mather and Steve Hanley. "The response I've had has been really positive," he said.

The same cannot always be said of the critics' reaction. "It's the same that we got in league in the early Eighties - that teams with a strong defence are boring. I think that's an idea that applies to football, but not to rugby, where the principle is surely that you work hard with the ball when you've got it and you work hard in defence when you haven't. I don't think Clive has had the credit he deserves. He's been very intelligent in the way that he's brought in specialists to work with him."

Larder will be working with Woodward again on this summer's tour to Australia - ironically the source of so much of the knowledge that he has spent almost two decades imprinting on both codes. It will bring back memories of some good and bad times on tour with Great Britain, just as watching his son, David, playing for Keighley, is a reminder of the day-to-day work at club level - a vacuum that is only partly filled by his work with Leicester.

"But it's like leaving any job. There are always things you miss, but your new job compensates for it. At the moment, with a massive event like the World Cup coming up, I'm thoroughly enjoying my involvement with rugby union."

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