Flood adopts team ethic but sometimes it can get personal

Leicester fly-half returned from England duty lacking form and fitness – now he's in fighting shape for Saturday's final
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The Independent Online

It would be easy to form the wrong impression about Toby Flood, with his moisturiser advert skin, carefully crimped hair and matchstick-thin legs. The Leicester fly-half set the record straight in his actions and words during and after last week's Premiership semi-final that featured Manu Tuilagi's heavyweight handywork and began days of debate over what is and is not acceptable on a rugby field. Flood tripped and smacked an England team-mate who was playing for Northampton, then quoted an old American footballer who believed it would be OK to whack your mother as long as she was playing for an opposing team.

"I'm not advocating things that are outside the law," Flood said when we met at Leicester's training ground in midweek. "But if you go out there and mince around, teams will take you lightly because they can bully you. We're all competitive animals, there'll always be a bit of niggle because it's a physical game and people do want to tear each other's heads off. It's the cheap shots that really wind people up."

And before you harrumph at a statement of the obvious – that rugby has its unwritten rules of engagement, and then a judiciary standing by to keep the excesses in check, as with Tuilagi's five-week ban for punching Chris Ashton – there is another point to this. Flood's form had been a cause for concern at his club. Doubts cropped up about him and his club and international half-back colleague, Ben Youngs, after the Six Nations' Championship campaign in February and March.

They were given a rest by Richard Cockerill, the director of rugby, in reaction to a defensive horror show in Leicester's 41-41 draw with Gloucester in mid-April. There were warnings from Cockerill to his players in meetings that they were being too individual. Eight days ago, when Flood dived on Dylan Hartley, the Northampton and England hooker, with a swinging arm of retaliation for a late tackle, it was an addition not a distraction to a good all-round performance. Leicester won 11-3 and went through to Saturday's Twickenham final with Saracens.

"Toby and Ben were tired mentally and physically after the Six Nations," Cockerill said. "It is Ben's first season of playing for us every week and for England. He makes a few nice breaks and scores tries, then play against him and mark him out of the game and suddenly it is not as easy. Toby's kicking out of hand, his ball-carrying and his tackling were very good against Northampton. They both worked hard to get the result for the team. That was the most pleasing thing for me. They were not worried about showcasing what they could do. That is what is most important."

Saracens, too, trade heavily in the team ethic. And if they have not got Leicester rattled, they have certainly got them thinking. The London side have won the last three regular-season meetings and in last season's classic of a Premiership final they were a few minutes from deposing the champions.

If Dan Hipkiss had been tackled when he ran through for his 77th-minute try instead of Sarries pausing in expectation of a penalty, or if Leicester's Geoff Parling had not stolen Schalk Brits's subsequent line-out throw, it might be the South African-backed Men in Black defending the title now, not the nine-time champion Tigers.

Both Cockerill and Flood believe their opponents are capable of unleashing a more open, unpredictable game than the one that has now carried them to 12 straight wins. As Flood contemplated "a whole season's work resting on this one game", he said: "Maybe they've learnt their lesson, maybe they think they can't go to a final, chuck it around and win the game. Maybe they think they've got to play it tight at finals time, narrow the game. Do what they need to do to win the game, rather than do what it needs to look good. But they have the ability to chuck the ball around and have a go if they need to."

With Tuilagi suspended, one of Matt Smith, Billy Twelvetrees or Hipkiss will come in, joining a Tigers team fresh from a marvellous try against Northampton, when Flood – in the way of the modern fly-half – did the set-up spadework and superb passes from the front-rowers George Chuter and Marcos Ayerza put Tuilagi's brother Alesana in to score for a fifth successive league match.

"I think that Saracens' game plan would be to get parity in the set scrums and try to turn the screw," said Flood. "They'll want to squeeze us and suffocate us. Finals are weird things. They should be tight, close-knit affairs. Last year was the anomaly."

If so, the result could come down to kicking. Cockerill was not happy with this, either, complaining that Flood returned from England duty in the autumn and the Six Nations – during which he altered his technique in conjunction with the national team's consultant coach, Dave Alred – with a lower percentage success rate, and a groin injury as a side effect.

Flood was out injured for the home Heineken Cup draw with Perpignan in December that sent Leicester on the road to defeat in Leinster in the quarter-final; his misses have not been numerous but they have sometimes been glaring. There were short-range hooks for England and Leicester in Dublin and a conversion charged down by London Irish last month.

Flood admits he has developed something akin to a golfer's yips: an involuntary stutter in the new, quicker run-up that he and Alred initiated to generate more momentum. "The stutter is me trying to kick using my eyes," said Flood, "trying to be a bit smoother in terms of my approach. I can totally understand that it's frustrating for a coach..." – that would be Cockerill – "... to have it done midway through the season.

"People get frustrated and rightly so but still I have to say the change in technique is working and I'm feeling better for it." Flood has not backed down and Alred has been to Leicester for the past three weeks, linking up with Flood and the club's kicking coach, Paul Burke.

Both the finalists' kickers get to practise at Twickenham in the days before the final. Flood admits he may have "an edge" as a veteran of the stadium – his England debut was there in 2006 – whereas his opposite number, Owen Farrell, has never played there. "I haven't played against him," Flood says of the 19-year-old, "but he trained against us when England Under-20s were with the full squad. He's been a revelation. What sets him apart is that ability to take it all in his stride and just get on with it.

"It's a final and, yeah, of course it's a challenge. It's a challenge for all of us," he adds. "He's got to go into that game and know he's got to kick most of his kicks, and drive the play and run the game in the way they want him to. What they'll do is take a lot of pressure away from him. Guys around him will look after him.

"Certainly when I first came into the England side at 21, Mike Catt was there, helping me through. You need that because it's so important for you to go well for the team, but also for yourself, driving forward."

The Aviva Premiership final is on ESPN next Saturday; 3pm kick-off

Where it will be won and lost

Line-out Tom Croft v Steve Borthwick

Croft can shift up and down the line and win the ball anywhere. The lighthouse, Borthwick, is also the brains of Sarries' pack. A mistimed jump cost him a yellow card in last Sunday's semi-final. Unlikely to happen twice.

Scrum Martin Castrogiovanni v Matt Stevens

Restaurant-owning "Castro" will want to take a few bites out of "Sos" Stevens, who is returning to his England best after his two-year ban. Leicester have England's Dan Cole as an alternative tighthead, demonstrating their greater strength in depth. Stevens' record for Saracens? Played 12, won 12.

Midfield Anthony Allen v Brad Barritt

Two World Cup candidates for England's problem position of inside centre. Allen has filled out from the waif whose Test debut in 2006 came and went in a two-cap flash. His dancing feet and clever lines are dangerous. The bigger Barritt is crucial to Sarries as young fly-half Owen Farrell's defensive eyes and ears.

No 8 Jordan Crane v Ernst Joubert

Crane's close-quarter skills have seen him take over from Thomas "the Tank Engine" Waldrom in recent weeks. Joubert is Saracens' Mr Consistency and his two tries in last year's final were thrillers. Both the selection and the style these boys choose to play could dictate whether we are treated to another classic.

Hugh Godwin