Rugby Union: Larder pulls back the iron curtain

Andrew Longmore meets the league man helping union's case for the defence
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The Independent Online
Phil Larder was studying volcanoes, coastal erosion and river formation when Clive Woodward rang to interrupt the geographic education of the pupils at Saddleworth School. Nursing the odd grievance and a silent phone, Larder was filling in time with some supply teaching in contemplation of a full-time return to his original profession. "I was loving it too," he said. But the new England coach had other ideas; Saddleworth's loss was England's gain. The volcanoes were put aside, the education of the English defence had begun.

Larder is passionate about defence in a way that would make George Graham purr. If his side wins by seven tries to nil, he's as happy with the nil. It stems from his own frustration, he said. "I was a good attacking centre, but my defence was terrible and that's what stopped me from being an international. I was crying out for guidance and no one gave it to me." In his first week as assistant coach in charge of defence, three England players approached him with much the same plea.

A flick of a video button reveals the extent of the weakness. Barely three minutes have gone in the First Test against New Zealand and the freeze frame is blowing a fuse. David Rees hurls himself manfully at Lomu, he bounces off; the giant All Black wing ploughs on through Phil de Glanville. "They went too high. Everyone knows you tackle low and the bigger they are the lower you go. Look, there's too much shirt pulling. You should be driving the shoulder in." On two glaring occasions, the culprit is Martin Johnson. "You cannot defend in isolation," Larder added, warming to his favourite theme. "If I was trying to defend Jeremy Guscott, I would get on his inside shoulder. If he goes on the outside, he's mine, if he steps inside he's yours." Defence is a simple matter of organisation and technique, "a sliding iron curtain" which blends individual responsibilities with collective industry. The bit which pleased him most about the epic draw with the All Blacks was a break by Jeff Wilson and Bull Allen which was initially slowed by Austin Healey and thwarted at the last by Richard Hill. An example of "scramble" defence to warm the heart.

At the age of 52, with hair greying at the edges - he's touchy on the subject - eyes searching, handshake firm, you still would not fancy running through him. His philosophy of games comes from the SAS book he has in the downstairs cloakroom rather than the pages of Tom Brown's Schooldays. "It's bloody life and death now. If you want to win the World Cup, it's no good being 80 per cent, it's 100 per cent. You've got to play on the edge for 80 minutes."

If Arthur Scargill had voted Tory, the switch of allegiance could not have been more profound. Twenty years as a pro, with Oldham, his home town, and Whitehaven, 17 years as a coach, with Keighley, Widnes, Great Britain and England, had given Larder spotless league credentials. The rugby league coaching manual is all his own work. But union was beginning to attract before dismissal by the Sheffield Eagles compounded a growing disillusion. He had taken one RFU coaching certificate and was working on the next. He heard yesterday he had passed that too and needed only a practical coaching session to complete his qualification. England would do, presumably.

Only fleetingly has he felt a sense of disorientation, betrayal even, an isolation dispelled by the warmth of the welcome from players and coaches and his immediate involvement in Woodward's brave new world. "It's not just another World Cup campaign, I feel something bubbling down there that isn't special at the moment, but could be. We're not just going to copy South Africa or New Zealand, we're going to come up with our own style. It's the most exciting group of ideas men I've ever worked with."

If England's heroics were a pointer to the future, Larder's influence will be critical in gaining what the assistant coach John Mitchell calls those "hard yards" and in grafting a league mentality on to professionally honed physiques. "Watch the Blacks and they deliberately leave men out of the rucks. It's a league formation. Jonno in the First Test admitted he was chasing shadows because as soon as he arrived at a breakdown the ball had gone. We must learn not to commit so many people, so there is always a second line of attack and defence.

"In union I think there's been a sense of 'once I've done my job, that's it'. But there's no room for that now. Everyone has to be able to handle, think tactically and defend properly. The good thing about these boys is that they are very coachable. They absorb things more quickly than league players."

Only a few rugby rituals have puzzled him. "The motivation takes place throughout the week, but in the half an hour before kick-off the screw is turned three or four more times. It's quite impressive and very different from league where the dressing-room tends to go quiet. Lawrence Dallaglio is the main speaker, but Jonno plays a big part. He never says 'we', he always says 'I' and then at the very last second he says what he's going to do and asks the team to follow him." Dallaglio, Larder believes, is already in the same leadership class as Ellery Hanley, the sort of all-action athlete who would have commanded some solid northern brass in the old days of division.

Larder would have led the bidding. Now, apart from watching his two sons play, one for Keighley, the other for Huddersfield YMCA, his loyalties lie elsewhere. After one abortive World Cup final, another distant challenge beckons. Geography will have to wait.