Rugby Union: Leicester investors show return: Chris Rea assesses the coach who has made the Tigers burn bright

Click to follow
The Independent Online
PEACE, perfect peace. The shrill crusaders who run down the new ruck and maul laws as a disincentive to attack were mercifully silenced after Leicester's tour de force against Northampton last Saturday. It was without question the finest exhibition of club rugby this season, a game of rippling movement, collective awareness and individual wizardry.

Leicester won 36-9 and provided final proof that with a positive attitude and creative players, the new is infinitely more attractive than the old. 'It was,' Tony Russ, Leicester's director of coaching, said, 'the most fulfilling and pleasing performance during my time at Welford Road.'

The game was the culmination of three-and-a-half years of careful planning, friendly persuasion and, occasionally, hostile resistance. Russ knew his very appointment meant Leicester acknowledged the need for change, but some members preferred to recall glories which, with every passing year, became more deeply embedded in the past. And the resistance was not confined to the clubhouse. 'One or two of the older players in the side were on a different wavelength and they left. It was unfortunate but it created the opportunity to develop the talents of younger players like (Neil) Back, (Martin) Johnson, (Matthew) Poole and (Graham) Rowntree.'

Russ concedes he made mistakes at first, the most serious being to take too much on. 'I thought I had to do everything and ended up doing nothing very well. It was a difficult first season and at the end there wasn't much to show. The players told me in no uncertain terms what they thought and I heeded their advice to make better use of my time.'

He first set about reorganising an archaic and inadequate coaching structure. He instituted a uniform coaching policy and set up a network of 17 coaches and fitness advisers to work with all five sides from youth level to the first XV. A document detailing the style of rugby best suited to Leicester was produced, and it remains the blueprint for the club's success.

'We are fortunate at Leicester that the strength of the club comes from within,' Russ said. 'We have had conspicuous success developing players from the youth side and many of the older players want to stay involved once they've given up the game. It is one of my jobs to identify potential coaches among the players: Ian Smith and Paul Dodge are examples of how successful that policy has been.' Indeed, nowadays Russ spends more of his time developing coaches than working with the players.

This continuity cannot be achieved without loyalty - a key word at Welford Road. When Jez Harris joined Leicester he was 17 and destined to spend most of his senior career in the shadow of others. Yet he was prepared to play a subordinate role in the hope that one day his fitful talent could be more consistently applied at higher levels. He also knew that, if that day did come, his loyalty would be repaid in full.

This season Harris has blossomed. The swagger of a man confident and comfortable on centre stage is plain. He has imposed himself and his style on the team and Leicester's midfield is flourishing. Last Saturday, Russ and his coaches revelled in the satisfaction of a performance that reached a rare level of excellence.

'Too many people in this country have been looking at the new laws from the wrong end. We identified specific areas of play that we would have to improve if we were to benefit from them. Fitness, support and handling were the priorities. Although I'm not completely happy with all aspects of the law changes, I think we've been able to adjust to them better than most.'

Russ is much surer of his and Leicester's position now, but despite winning the Pilkington Cup and coming third in the Courage League last year, he knows there is much to do. 'Bath have been winning trophies for the past 10 years and they are still the team to beat. I won't be satisfied until we can reach that level of consistency and then sustain it. For that we need strivers as well as achievers who, by definition, have already reached their goal. The perfect team is one which has the right balance.' On recent evidence, Leicester are getting very close to that perfection.