Leeds seek the inner Tarzan to escape a relegation jungle

Well adrift at the bottom of the Premiership, the Yorkshiremen need a repeat of last season's survival epic, reports Chris Hewett
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The Independent Online

When the northern weather behaves itself, Leeds train the house down from the outside. Just recently, they have been training it down from the inside, on account of the foot of snow covering the practice pitches in Kirkstall, a couple of miles from the city centre. The Monday-to-Friday routine is rarely a problem for the Yorkshiremen, who prepare for matches the way Hendre Fourie, their freshly-capped international, plays them: physically, passionately, and with little apparent interest in the taking of prisoners. Unfortunately, weekends are more of an issue.

Eight months after victory in the "million-pound match" against Worcester at Headingley – the game that kept them in the top flight and transformed the club's financial affairs by earning them funding parity with the rest of the Premiership – they are bottom of the table once again. And by some distance, too. Newcastle, immediately above them in 11th place, have seven points in hand, while Sale, in 10th, are four points further on.

Indeed, the current standings are so deeply alarming for the whole of professional club rugby in the north that Andy Key might stay awake at night fretting about it, but for the fact that he is generally awake anyway.

"You know the old saying about training like Tarzan and playing like Jane?" he asks. "Maybe we should start training like Jane in the hope that we might start playing like Tarzan. Doing both like Tarzan would be ideal, but right now we need to win some games."

That is the kind of line that has characterised the Midlander's tenure as director of rugby – quick-witted and good-humoured yet loaded with meaning – and if there is someone in the Premiership who has a better than even chance of staying calm and vaguely rational under severe pressure, that someone is Key. The next few weeks will be a test for him, nonetheless.

Leeds have lost nine from nine thus far, leaking 40 points or more on three occasions, and while the freeze has spared them the trauma of facing an outstanding Northampton side tomorrow, they must play them some time.

Their record this time last year was hardly sensational, but they at least had a win and a draw in the bank and were losing by smaller margins. It is not quite accurate to say that their two Christmas fixtures, away at Newcastle and home to Gloucester, will be decisive, but they have to make something happen before they lose Fourie, by far their best player, to England next month.

Back in early October, when his side conceded 40 points to London Irish at the Madejski Stadium but played rather well in doing so, Key declared that he had "no concerns over where we are". Wherever Leeds were then, they are in a more difficult place now. Has Key treated himself to a little rethink in the weeks since that game in Reading?

"Actually, I don't think things have changed a huge amount," he replies. "I remain extremely confident in the ability of the players, in where we can go as a club. The challenge is one of consistency, because just at the moment there is no continuity of performance from week to week. Usually, we do a number of things well while letting ourselves down in certain other areas, so we address the problems in training and the players take the messages on board.

"That's fine, because that's how it should work. The problem is that as we improve the bad things, the good things deteriorate. There's a disconnect, basically. It's as if we can't take a step forward here without taking a step back there."

Last week at Harlequins, there were enough backward steps to justify the attachment of a set of reversing lights to the Leeds away strip: a 51-18 defeat that left Key wondering what the hell and why. "That was completely out of character," he says. "Poor decisions, poor execution ... too many poor individual performances all round. It was a massive blip. It's hard to think of a performance that was less of a reflection of what we'd done in training. In a way, that's why I remain optimistic. If I felt we weren't training well, that there was little understanding amongst the players of what we're all trying to achieve, I really would be sitting here thinking: 'Shit, we're in a hole'."

A considerable proportion of the extra £1m earned at the end of last season has been used to pay off debt. "Our spend on players was never going to be quite as much as some people thought," Key admits. "We were able to strengthen in certain areas, not least by bringing Steve Thompson (the World Cup-winning England hooker) across from France, but we always knew that team-building would be a gradual process." For the time being, it seems, Leeds will continue to be a "selling club", to borrow a phrase from football.

That will not change until they set down roots in the Premiership. They spent five seasons in the elite league from 2001, but have been relegated twice since, hence the delay in securing a full share of central funding. Those monies are guaranteed for the foreseeable future and there is no imminent likelihood of them "doing a Bristol" and disappearing off the rugby radar. But another spell in the second tier would leave them vulnerable to public apathy in a city so in love with football and rugby league.

Will Key attempt to recapture the "over our dead bodies" spirit that worked such wonders for Leeds in the second half of last season? Or does he suspect that something more will be needed this time round, especially as Exeter are making such a tremendous fist of their first campaign at this level? The former Leicester stalwart – born in Market Harborough, he enjoyed two stints as a Tigers player between 1975 and 1992 before taking on roles as academy manager and head of rugby development – accepts he has no choice but to play the backs-to-the-wall card.

"We started this season telling ourselves that we wouldn't go through all that again, but now that we find ourselves in a similar boat, we'll have to draw on the same spirit," he says. "But it will be tougher to make it work for us. For one thing, our opponents know more about us now. For another, it's easier to bring bloody-mindedness to bear, to develop that kind of psyche, when you're new in the division and you know every game will be a cup final. Exeter have that mindset at the moment and they're making it count.

"I believe we'll have to bring something extra if we're to move away from the bottom of the table. I don't think we've had the best of luck so far. We can look at four games this season that might easily have turned out differently, and if they had, this discussion wouldn't be happening. Also, the new interpretations at the tackle area didn't help us in the early matches. You can't take the rewarding of strong defence out of the equation and still have a proper game of rugby, and while things are balancing out a little now, too much was being asked of defences in those first half-dozen games or so. It affected us, definitely.

"But the worst thing we can do is look for things to hide behind, and I won't let that happen. What we need is honesty – we're good at honesty, I'm happy to say – and clarity. We brought Steve in to give us something there and now he's back from England duty, I think we'll have a little extra direction. And we'll have Hendre too, of course. He had a tremendous autumn with England and his feet may not be back on the ground quite yet, but he'll do what we need him to do, just as he did last season. He'll smash the guts out of the opposition for as long as it takes to break them, whether it be 20 minutes, 60 minutes or 79 minutes. With our best players on the field, we'll be competitive."

The question is whether they can be competitive now. If Leeds reach the end of March in touch with Newcastle, the other obvious strugglers, they will have a shot at survival, for their five-game run-in is markedly easier than the Tynesiders'. But unless Key sees more of the Tarzan and less of the Jane immediately, there will be no way out of the jungle.