Andy Goode: The Tiger out to be king of the Euro jungle

Leicester's No 10 is fired up for today's Heineken Cup quarter-final against Bath at the Walkers Stadium and the siege-gun kicker has his sights on next year's World Cup
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The Independent Online

It is the new law of sporting physics, one that would have intrigued Sir Isaac Newton rather more than it enthuses Andy Robinson: for every action, there is an over-reaction. England lost the last match of an undeniably fraught Six Nations campaign to a brilliant Irish try in the eighth minute of stoppage time - hardly the ideal way to end a tournament, but, hey, the Samaritans have heard worse. And what do we get? A full-blown crisis. So much for sleepy old Twickenham. Right now, the place resembles the Winter Palace on the night of the revolution.

All those capable of distinguishing between a tight-head prop and a cheeseburger - and some who would struggle to manage even that much - are demanding mass sackings, public executions and the return of Sir Clive Woodward, preferably on a white charger with a flag of St George tied to its tail. Why? Because England made a nonsense of two games they should have won with their eyes shut and fell apart at the seams for 80 horrible minutes in Paris. Calamitous as that collapse against the French may have been, there is something unreal about the scale of the response. Needless to say, the most recent addition to the side is as baffled as anyone.

"Yes, it does surprise me, some of the stuff that's being said," admitted Andy Goode, the Leicester outside-half, at Welford Road this week. "I know people expect us to win every game because we're world champions, but even so... Ask yourself this: would all this stuff be flying around had we won those very tight games against Scotland and Ireland? Of course not." And France?

"France was a freak," Goode said, without a second's thought. "Even there, I thought we had a chance of winning the game when we got back to 16-6 early in the second half and had them under pressure. But we turned over some attacking ball, there was a defensive mess-up in midfield and they scored the try that killed us. I'm not denying we played poorly - you shouldn't be a professional rugby player if you can't catch the ball, and we made individual errors from one to 15. No coach in the world can legislate for the kind of skills breakdown we suffered. But really, the margins were not that great."

Goode, one of the England players who emerged from the Six Nations with his name on the right side of the credit-debit ledger, knows a thing or two about small margins. Take last season's Heineken Cup semi-final against Toulouse at the Walkers Stadium, when the Frenchmen scored three tries to one and recorded a 27-19 victory on their way to a third European title. "They got a couple of breaks," he recalled. "That's all it was. They scored off a forward pass. We dropped a couple of passes five metres out, thank you and good night. The scoreline might point to something comprehensive, but scorelines do not always say everything about a match."

Leicester, with Goode in his increasingly influential playmaking role, are back at the football stadium for today's Heineken quarter-final tie with Bath. "Being a Coventry City supporter, I hate the place," said Goode, in tones only half-ironic. "People questioned the atmosphere there last year, but actually, I thought the atmosphere was fine while we were still in the game. It went pretty quiet when Toulouse scored a couple of tries after half-time, but that was only to be expected. There'll be the best part of 30,000 Leicester people in there for this one, and they'll make a noise, I'm sure."

The Tigers would not be there at all but for the 25-year-old's extraordinary performance against Stade Français in the pivotal pool game in mid-January. The Parisians played with remarkable control and composure for much of that game, forcing Goode into throwing an errant pass to the red-hot Italian centre Mirco Bergamasco - a faux pas that resulted in an interception try and appeared to shatter the Leicester man's confidence as a falling tree might lay waste to a potting shed. For an uncomfortably long time, he could do nothing right. Yet in the final 10 minutes, he regathered his wits and redoubled his efforts to inspire his side to their most remarkable European victory since they beat the same opponents in the 2001 final.

"I draw on those kinds of experience," Goode acknowledged. "When I make mistakes now, I can look back to that and see a way through it. We turned that game round as a team; it wasn't down to me by any means. But yes, it was the sort of comeback that gives me confidence when the chips are down. As our outside-half, and our main goal-kicker as well, it's no good me disappearing into my shell. I'm there to run the attacking game, not go missing because I feel miserable about the way I'm performing. It's important to remember that however bad things get, there's always a chance of playing my way back into the good stuff."

Generally speaking, confidence is not an issue for Goode. There is no arrogance about him, nothing of the braggart, but he speaks his mind and comes heavily armed with a lacerating sense of humour. ("What an honour to have my picture taken with the best player in the world," he said earlier this season after being photographed alongside the Leicester wing Tom Varndell, who had just scored a try on his England debut. Varndell was well within earshot, naturally). He is also an unusually gifted all-round sportsman, having been a top-class swimmer in his teens, a good enough cricketer to have captained several Warwickshire age-group sides and an annoyingly useful golfer. As a result, things come more easily to Goode than to the majority of his peers.

His marksmanship is a case in point. Anything around the 50-metre mark is comfortably within his range, and he can go close from 60 metres with the grace of God and a following wind. Yet there is nothing obsessive about his preparation, no making a virtue of his penance on the training field. "Goal-kicking is the kind of thing that needs constant work and I usually practise three times a week, but I'm not so anal that I spend Christmas Day doing it," he said. "My range? I suppose it's pretty long, but I can't tell you why. I do my leg work in the gym like any other kicker, but in the end, it's just something I have within me. There are stronger guys than me who can't kick 60 metres. By the same yardstick, there are guys less strong than me who tackle a whole lot better."

This reassuringly sane approach to the sporting life underpins a surge in form that has seen Goode establish a place for himself among the England élite. It has taken him a good while - he won his first Heineken Cup winner's medal as a 21-year-old - and it it may be that he never quite manages to nail things down as a first-choice No 10. But the longer he played against Ireland in that last Six Nations fixture, the more accomplished he appeared. He will surely travel to Australia for the two-Test series this summer, and has every right to train his sights on next year's World Cup in France.

"My job as a No 10 is to boss the team, and now I've done it at international level from the start of a match, I feel I've moved up a level as a player," he said. "I'm the same person, playing the same kind of game I've always played. But it meant a lot to me to be given that opportunity, even though it came because Charlie Hodgson was injured. Do I see myself as the man in possession? Not really. Charlie is a great outside-half, the No 1 in England. My job is to maintain the pressure and make sure I'm considered alongside him."

Hodgson turns out for Sale against Biarritz in San Sebastian tomorrow, and the England hierarchy are far from upset at the thought of both current outside-halves playing at the business end of the best club competition in world rugby - "the be-all and end-all", as Goode describes the Heineken Cup. If the two men finish on winning sides this weekend, they will square up to each other in an all-Premiership semi-final at the City of Manchester Stadium later this month. That will be even better for the likes of Robinson, who needs every last piece of selectorial information he can get.

Understandably, Goode is not thinking along these lines. "This is about Leicester, about us putting a trophy on the shelf for the first time since 2002," he said. "We don't have Martin Johnson or Neil Back any more, but we're getting past that now. We're building something new. When I played in that final in 2001, Pat Howard was next to me at inside-centre, calling all the shots and dishing out the reassurance. Now, Pat's the coach and I'm the one helping younger guys like Dan Hipkiss deal with the big occasion. Things change, don't they? We'd all have liked Martin and Neil to play on for ever, but reality says it can't happen."

A firm grip on reality is as central to Goode's game as it was to Johnson's. The younger man may not win a World Cup for England as his old Leicester mucker did in Australia three years ago, but he may yet get the chance to try.