Bad experience steels Goode for European summit

A hiccup against Leeds last week has put the impressive Leicester No 10 on his mettle for tonight's test in Dublin. <i><b>Chris Hewett</b></i> met the man at the heart of the Tigers' plans
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The Independent Online

Phil Davies, the amiable Welshman who miraculously manages to coach Leeds with a smile on his face despite the degree of abject misery attached to the job, admitted last weekend that he had his head "in a cupboard somewhere" as the Leicester outside-half Andy Goode lined up an injury-time, match-winning penalty at Headingley. Davies would have put his head inside a coffin had he been able to find one, for his team were teetering on the very brink - not merely of defeat, but of relegation from the Premiership. And as Goode had not even looked like missing a kick in weeks, he was unlikely to extend the boot of friendship at this critical moment in time.

Phil Davies, the amiable Welshman who miraculously manages to coach Leeds with a smile on his face despite the degree of abject misery attached to the job, admitted last weekend that he had his head "in a cupboard somewhere" as the Leicester outside-half Andy Goode lined up an injury-time, match-winning penalty at Headingley. Davies would have put his head inside a coffin had he been able to find one, for his team were teetering on the very brink - not merely of defeat, but of relegation from the Premiership. And as Goode had not even looked like missing a kick in weeks, he was unlikely to extend the boot of friendship at this critical moment in time.

But all Goode things come to an end, and the 24-year-old Midlander messed up. "It wasn't the most difficult kick in history and I certainly didn't think I was going to miss it, but I rushed things a little, failed to get my weight through the ball and pushed it wide," he recalled this week. "I wasn't the happiest. It cost us the game, and it put an end to a really good run on the kicking front: 19 on the bounce, 25 successes from 27 attempts. You don't have spells like that too often. I remember getting to 18 a few years back, but it's different when you're the first-choice kicker, doing the job in all the big games."

Big games do not come a great deal more supersized than this evening's Heineken Cup quarter-final with Leinster in Dublin, which will draw a capacity crowd of 48,500 to the rickety stands and windswept terraces of Lansdowne Road. The Irish province have an Australian import, David Holwell, as their goal-kicking No 10 - the heaviest scorer in the tournament to date, with 96 points from the six pool matches. Goode is 15 points behind. With due respect to Leeds and their ilk, this is the type of challenge he really craves. The Premiership may be the measure of a campaign for the majority of English clubs, but Leicester generally look beyond these shores for their fulfilment.

"I'm not being funny about this and I don't mean to belittle other Premiership clubs, but our season will be defined by our performance in Europe," Goode said. "Look at that Leinster back division - [Brian] O'Driscoll and [Denis] Hickie and Holwell, terrific players all of them. When you see those names on the opposition team sheet, you know you're in the big league. There aren't many Premiership sides with backs who frighten you like these people. And it's the fear that drives you, isn't it? Special games have special atmospheres; you can almost smell the fear in the dressing-room before kick-off. We play our best rugby when we're on edge, when every player is worrying about getting it wrong and letting people down. We had that feeling about us before both pool games against Wasps, which were huge occasions, and we'll have it again this weekend."

Goode luxuriates in the kind of God-given talent that allows him to move with ease through this sporting life; annoyingly, he is an excellent golfer and a very decent cricketer with both bat and ball. But while he has achieved a considerable amount in his chosen game in a relatively short space of time - capped by England at two age-group levels, he made his Leicester debut as an 18-year-old and played in the classic 2001 Heineken Cup final against Stade Français a few days after his 21st birthday - most of it has been accomplished without anyone noticing. It must be fiendishly difficult to stand out in a crowd of Martin Johnsons, Neil Backs and Austin Healeys, but Goode's volumes have spoken silence.

Until now. This season, he has been among the dominant ones; indeed, his role in elevating Leicester to their present state of grace has been greater than that of any of his colleagues, Johnson and Back included. He has scored 207 points in the Premiership, a good 40 more than his nearest rival, Charlie Hodgson of Sale; more than that, he has run the back-line and implemented the tactics and strategies concocted by the coaches, John Wells and Pat Howard, with a calm assurance and an air of invention way beyond anything he showed before his 18-month flirtation with Saracens, whom he joined from the Tigers at the start of the 2002-03 campaign.

This week, he was as reluctant as ever to discuss the whys and wherefores of that move, or his reasons for returning to Welford Road two Decembers ago. (It seems those reasons had a good deal to do with the former Wallaby centre Rod Kafer, with whom he did not see eye to eye during the latter's spell with the Tigers and whose subsequent move to Saracens was comfortably enough to send Goode in the opposite direction). Goode did, however, accept that the season and a half he spent at Vicarage Road helped him to mature into a stronger, more confident and broader-minded No 10 - the kind of No 10 physically, psychologically and emotionally equipped to handle the pressures of the pivot position at a major league club like Leicester.

"During my first spell at Leicester, I was back-up kicker to Tim Stimpson - and the way Tim kicked during his time here, I wasn't needed very often," he said. "When I moved to Saracens - a move I didn't particularly want to make, but felt forced into making - I was the front-line kicker. That put a very different slant on things, and by the time I'd been doing it for 15 or 16 months, I was a more confident player all round. Certain aspects of my game slipped during my time there, and I've had to work pretty hard to get back up to scratch. But the kicking was the big thing. I needed an opportunity, and Saracens gave it to me."

When Goode left the Watford-based club midway through the 2003-04 campaign, he was their leading scorer by a distance. By the end of term, he was Leicester's leading scorer, too. In all, he accumulated 266 Premiership points that season, concluding with a remarkable 10-conversion performance against Rotherham. With Jaco van der Westhuyzen, the maverick Springbok, indulging his wanderlust by moving to Japan, and the coveted Welshman Stephen Jones opting to try his luck in France with Clermont Auvergne, Goode was the natural choice at stand-off when hostilities resumed last September. His club form, allied to a beautifully judged performance in the A international against France last month, fast-tracked him into the thoughts of the England hierarchy. He now has two full caps to his name, having come off the bench in the Six Nations victories over Italy and Scotland at Twickenham.

"That makes a difference too," he said with a smile. "I'm the same bloke - I'm not the sort to shout the odds about England honours, especially as my two appearances involved very little time on the pitch - but I was getting pretty fed up with being the only non-international in the Leicester back division. In our match programmes, we have the capped players in capital letters and the rest in small letters. I stuck out like a sore thumb, and my delightful team-mates never seemed to get tired of giving me stick about it. From now on, they can rip it out of someone else."

This has been an uncomfortable few weeks for Leicester, despite their heavy involvement at the business end of both major tournaments. Wells, who could hardly have been more effective in the boss-man's role following the demise of Dean Richards midway through last season, has accepted a job with England's national academy set-up, having caught a strong whiff of his own vulnerabilty in the face of Welford Road's uniquely febrile internal politics. Matt Hampson, a young prop promoted to the first-team squad at the start of the campaign, suffered a desperate neck injury during a scrummaging session with England's Under-21s and is currently in a critical condition at Stoke Mandeville Hospital. And then there was the defeat at Leeds, which had the effect of drawing Wasps back into the race for the one automatic place in next month's Premiership final at Twickenham.

"There's lot going on here," Goode agreed. "I'm disappointed John is going - he's been a massive influence, an absolutely central element in my career and I'll miss him, not just because of his expertise but because he's a nice guy, an up-front bloke who tells you what's what and gives it to you straight. We all owe him, every last one of us. And Matt? Well, that's a terrible thing. He's a good friend to all of us. What else can you say, except to hope against hope that he'll make a strong recovery?

"By comparison, the Leeds business was nothing more than a bad day at the office. But it did remind us of the scale of the challenge we face against Leinster - maybe there was something of the quarter-final in our subconscious when we played at Headingley - and reinforced the fact that this weekend of all weekends, we have to front up. We sat down as a group of players and thrashed out the Leeds performance amongst ourselves, and I think it was a valuable exercise. It took about 10 minutes, because we all knew what went wrong and why. We'll be much better in Ireland, definitely. Why? Because we'll have to be."

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