Andy Key's assertion that he had "no concerns over where we are" was, on the face of it, akin to General Custer professing complete equanimity over his position at Little Bighorn. Yet while Leeds find themselves four points adrift at the bottom of the Aviva Premiership, having played five matches and won precisely none of them, their director of rugby knows he has a significant weapon at his disposal in the shape of Hendre Fourie, who, on this evidence, might well turn out to be a one-man cavalry regiment.
Come to think of it, Leeds are not the only team likely to be thankful for the gift of Fourie this season. The hard-nut flanker may not be much of an Englishman – he hails from Burgersdorp in the North Eastern Cape and knows rather more about the Stormberg Mountains than he does about the Pennines – but he has declared himself for the red-rose cause, worked his way into Martin Johnson's elite party for the forthcoming internationals and looks to have a half-decent chance of cramping the style of Richie McCaw when the world's best forward brings his All Blacks to Twickenham on 6 November.
He will have to find a way past Lewis Moody first, of course, but the current captain is buttering very few parsnips at Bath right now, and if England believe the best way of testing the New Zealanders is to reduce the game to an 80-minute bout of arm-wrestling – an obvious temptation for the current coaching team, given their rampant agoraphobia – they should give serious consideration to naming the uncapped South African among their replacements.
Fourie found himself on the painful end of a defeat at the Madejski Stadium on Saturday, and earned himself a spell of penance in the sin-bin for good measure, so he did remarkably well to end the contest as the pick of the 46 players on view, narrowly pipping the London Irish wing Sailosi Tagicakibau, who performed so brilliantly off the bench that it was difficult to believe he was on the bench in the first place.
Fourie was not quite as dazzling as the try-scoring Samoan, but then, there is not much call for dazzle in the areas of most interest to him. His tackling, turnover work and close-quarters off-loading was exceptional, to the extent that Leeds were the better side until he was dispatched to the cooler two minutes before the interval.
Key was not wildly impressed by Greg Garner's decision to incarcerate Fourie. "We have to look very carefully at what we're doing to the sport," he said. "We're in danger of swaying things too much in one direction. Everything is about the attacking side now, but there is a part of the game that's about defence, about competing for the ball. When Hendre was penalised and sent to the bin, the London Irish guy was the one isolated. On that basis, it wasn't a penalty and it wasn't a yellow card."
And there's the rub for Fourie. Last season, when an open-side flanker could still do what open-side flankers had done since time immemorial – get himself over the ball in the tackle, slowing its release at worst or pinching it at best – the South African was as effective as anyone in the Premiership, hence the offer of a new deal in March and, one assumes, a healthy hike in pay. Since then, breakaway specialists have fallen victim to new interpretations at the breakdown that require them to free a player after the hit, give him a "reasonable opportunity" to present the ball on the floor, make him a cup of tea and give him a peck on the cheek before attempting to relieve him of possession. Much more of this, and every specialist No 7 in the country will be filing an action with the European Court of Human Rights.
There had been a whisper that Leeds, having thrown more of the folding stuff at Fourie, were wondering whether it was money well spent, now he was forbidden to do all the things he was good at doing. That whisper was wrong. Fourie demonstrated at the weekend that he has successfully recalibrated his game. He may have spent time in the bin, but he also scored a genuine open-side's try, stretching over from a close-range lineout. No one, not even London Irish, begrudged him that.
Finishing this first tranche of Premiership matches at the top of the log, the Exiles have good reason to feel happy with life. They have not played particularly well thus far – Toby Booth, their head coach, admitted as much here – but they are scoring something in excess of three tries a game and are beginning to draw the best from Ryan Lamb, an outside-half who, for all his funny little foibles, has both the artistry and the animal cunning to unlock defences. With Paul Hodgson and Daniel Bowden making intelligent decisions either side of him, Lamb will pose a serious threat to all-comers.
One fleet-footed scamper out of defence late in the first half led directly to Fourie's alleged yellow-card indiscretion, and there were a couple of back-handed flips that will bamboozle the men from Leeds a second time when they watch them on the video. "He has incredible instinct," said Booth, who always suspected it would take Lamb a season or so to adjust to life away from his native Gloucester. "Now he has some extra information available to him, we're seeing a better level of game control."
What was more, not even Fourie found a way of roughing him up and knocking the cocky little so-and-so off his perch in time-honoured fashion. The flanker was damned good, but the outside-half was the one who left the stadium with a spring in his step.
London Irish: Tries Tagicakibau 2, Buckland, Stowers. Conversions Lamb 3, Malone. Penalties: Lamb 4. Leeds: Tries Thomas, Fourie, Burrell. Conversions Thomas 2, Lewis-Pratt. Penalty Thomas.
London Irish D Armitage; T Ojo, S Mapusua, D Bowden (E Seveali'i ,58), J Joseph (S Tagicakibau, 58); R Lamb (C Malone, 72), P Hodgson; C Dermody (capt; M Lahiff, 77), J Buckland (D Paice, 58), A Corbisiero (F Rautenbach, 51), N Kennedy, R Casey, K Roche (J Fisher, 72), D Danaher (M Garvey, 50), G Stowers.
Leeds L Hinton; M Stephenson, J Tincknell, L Burrell, S Tadulala (H Fa'afili, 69); C Thomas (C Lewis-Pratt, 77), S Mathie (W Fury, 62); M MacDonald (G Hardy, 63), A Titterrell (S Thompson, 52), J Gomez (M Alonso, h-t), S Hohneck (T Denton, 63), M Wentzel (capt), K Myall, H Fourie, D Paul (R Oakley, 20).
Referee: G Garner (Warwickshire).Reuse content