Rugby Union: Howard's way leads Leicester towards title

Welford Road is grateful for an Australian solution to the club's injury problems at stand-off. By Chris Hewett
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THE GOSPEL According to Saint Barry of Cefneithin decrees that the finest outside-halves possess a holy trinity of uncoachable qualities - wit, time and vision - and that the greatest of these is vision. In which case, Joel Stransky is the seer who sees more than most. It is one thing to dictate the shape and feel of a game on the field; it is quite another to spot your own injury problems seven months before they happen and take the necessary precautions to cover your back.

Not that Pat Howard, the 26-year-old Queenslander charged with papering over Leicester's midfield cracks in the prolonged absence of both Stransky and Will Greenwood, likes to think of himself as someone else's insurance policy. Indeed, he is very much his own man; one of life's "my way or no way" types, he graduated from the University of Super 12 with a doctorate in self-confidence - unusual for an Australian, you will doubtless agree - and can muster a score of Wallaby caps in support of his forthright opinions. He can play a bit, too; sharp, imaginative and granite hard, he has contributed more than most to a Tigers' Premiership One campaign that may well bear fruit at Newcastle this weekend.

But the fact remains that Stransky was instrumental in securing Howard's arrival from the southern hemisphere last summer and that it gave Leicester a safety net of new options, all of which they have been grateful for this season. Greenwood's chronic groin condition, now diagnosed as osteitis of the pubic bone, presented the newcomer with an immediate place in the firing line at inside centre and when Stransky's knee began to play up after Christmas, he was asked to take on the pivot role. In one sense, his performances have bordered on the pointless, a single conversion being his only contribution to the Midlanders' Premiership tally of almost 700 in the course of 24 games. On the other hand, there is a wider point to almost everything he does on a rugby pitch.

"I like to give it a rip," he admits. "Why play rugby if you're not going to stretch yourself and ask yourself a few questions? The reason we're all here now is that at some point in our youth, we were out there on the paddock when something clicked and we said to ourselves: `Hey, how much fun is this?' It's the ultimate game, a sport in which you use everything you have: your speed, your strength, whatever you have between the ears. So yeah, I'll always back myself to run the ball and get a pass away out of the tackle, even on the winter mudheaps you find over here."

The circumstances that led Howard to find his way over here were a mix of memory and desire; he had fond recollections both of some exhilarating southern hemisphere contests with Stransky and, rather more painfully, the almighty hangover he suffered following a drinking session with Richard Cockerill and the rest of the Leicester front row. He also wanted a change of scene, partly the result of a natural wanderlust and partly because of his uncomfortable relationship with the Wallaby hierarchy. He is unusually cagey on the latter issue - "I wouldn't say I'm overly controversial, but I don't mind sticking up for my mates," is as illuminating as he gets - but he was clearly under the impression that his Test career had reached the diminuendo stage, despite a terrific run of form with his beloved ACT Brumbies.

"England was an obvious place to come; I'd lived in London during my backpacking days and fancied another look around. I'd played a Test against Joel in Bloemfontein in '96 and we'd also been on opposite sides in Super 12, so we knew each other pretty well. I also knew Neil Back from a Barbarians match in '94, and the front-row boys, the ABC club, from the Baa-Baas' game in aid of the Dunblane victims. We had a few drinks, the four of us; I remember the before and I certainly remember the after, but I still don't have much idea about the during. Anyway, we got along pretty well."

After all that, Leicester seemed a natural place to go.

"I didn't arrive with any guarantees of a place, but with Joel in the side I saw myself as a [number] 12 rather than a 10. As it turned out, Will was struggling from the start and I was given a chance straight away. I've had a fantastic time. It's such a close-knit club; I've got mates playing down in London who only see their colleagues at training and on match day, whereas at Welford Road you find that the guys you play with are not just your workmates but also your friends, your support system. That sort of intimacy allows you to go to a place like Northampton with half the side missing and come away with a win."

When Leicester visited London Irish last October, Howard came away with a broken jaw. "It happens," he says, neglecting to mention either that he suffered the injury in the 10th minute of the game yet stayed on for the duration. But then, he is one tough hombre. Along with many of his fellow professionals, he is deeply disturbed by refereeing interpretations that are fast emasculating the game by outlawing the ruck.

"If I get caught on the wrong side, I deserve whatever kicking the opposition dish out, as long as no one goes for my head. Back home, and particularly in New Zealand, rucking is part and parcel of the game and has been for God knows how long. Get on the wrong side and you get rubbed out, simple as that. The ruck is the thing that distinguishes our game from rugby league and Aussie Rules because it allows such continuity. Whoever is instructing the referees to blow it out of the water needs to take a long hard look at things in time for the World Cup."

With another year left on his contract, Howard is relishing the prospect of European rugby next season: "It got big showtime in Australia when the English clubs were last involved and I'd certainly put it up there with Super 12 in terms of intensity and spectator appeal," he says. And after next summer? "Who knows? The Lions will be touring back home in 2001 and their match against ACT will be one hell of an occasion. I'd like to be part of that, for sure."

He may well get his wish. As the best rugby insurance policy around, Pat Howard's services are suddenly at a premium.