Back to the future for buoyant Leeds
Two former Leicester stalwarts are planning to ensure their new side make promotion stick for more than one season next time
Sunday 04 January 2009
It seems to be an unwritten law of the Guinness Premiership that what goes down must go up... or vice versa. Once again Leeds, or Leeds Carnegie as they are now called, are dominating National League One. Barring a boatload of banana skins, they will regain promotion to the top table.
Whether they will stay there depends on a number of factors, but one thing is for sure – Leeds are the yo-yo champions. In recent seasons they have experienced more ups and downs than any other club, and yet once again they are the most buoyant team in the second tier, having beaten everything in front of them.
Heavyweights such as Bristol, Harlequins and Northampton have found themselves falling through the trapdoor and Leeds, who went down in 2006, came back up and went down again, have reinvented themselves.
After the reign of Phil Davies and Stuart Lancaster, Leeds recruited Andy Key as director of rugby and Neil Back as head coach. Both of them are veterans from Leicester, the former as a coach, the latter as a phenomenal back-row forward.
Back won 66 caps for England, went on three Lions tours and in 15 seasons with the Tigers scored more than 100 tries, more often than not from a rolling maul. He became the first England forward in 117 years to score four tries in an international, albeit against the Netherlands in 1998, and against Italy in Rome he had the audacity to drop a goal. English forwards don't drop goals.
Key and Back made some key changes, notably at half-back, where they brought in Jason Strange from Bristol and the scrum-half Scott Mathie from Natal Sharks, plus Henry Paul, a league/union international. Another inspirational move was to appoint the Californian Mike MacDonald as a leader on the field. Inevitably, they call the prop Big Mac.
It is Little Back, however – "sixty-six caps isn't bad for somebody they described as too small" – who has put some steel into the backbone of Leeds. "We are an ambitious and ruthless side," Back said. It sounds like an echo of Leicester. "We are seeing the skills-development work that we are doing with the players on the training ground coming through in the games. That development, combined with the fitness structure that has been put in place, is clear for all to see."
After retiring from the game, Back didn't just work with the Leicester academy – "I loved it, they hung on my every word" – but with the Tigers' defence, and even if Leeds score 50 points he hates it when they concede a try. "We are forming a team here to compete in the Guinness Premiership. Northampton did not go through this division last year blowing people away and winning playing beautiful rugby, they did it by winning each game, and you only need to win by a point." Leeds have been winning far more handsomely than that.
As the club have shown before, relegation is not the end of the world, but nor is promotion necessarily the beginning. When Leeds went down a couple of seasons ago, the All Black scrum-half Justin Marshall moved to the Ospreys, Iain Balshaw went to Gloucester, Tom Palmer to Wasps and Jordan Crane to Leicester.
A handful of loyalists remained, including the left-wing Tom Biggs, who has a tremendous try-scoring rate, whether inside the Premiership or out of it, and Leeds are lucky to have kept him. If, or when, they go back up, the club will have to recruit again, but they need not look for a left-wing.
Key, who was instrumental in graduating youngsters into the Tigers' squad, has formed, or re-formed, an effective relationship with Back, transporting their experience from the Midlands to Yorkshire. "Since Neil and I arrived here the attitude of everyone at the club has been fantastic," Key said. "Leeds obviously found itself at a crossroads at the end of last season and credit must go to the directors, who recognised that we needed to move in a new direction. The club has acknowledged its past shortcomings and we have been able to put forward plans that have been embraced.
"The area I have been most focused on is our performance, and creating an environment in which our players can reach their full potential. The players need to get into their head that they have the ability to play in the Premiership. You cannot just plan to get promotion and then hope for the best when you get up there. The players have to believe in themselves and be ready for the impact when it comes."
When it comes, the impact will be considerable. As Stuart Lancaster, a stalwart Leeds man, observed: "While you're out of the Premiership the game moves on again."
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