Sam Vesty: 'Dad told me no one likes players who don't tackle'

Sam Vesty comes from a long line of Leicester Tigers, and fighting spirit is in his blood. He tells Chris Hewett about his England call up and how he hopes to snuff out Leinster's challenge in today's Heineken Cup final
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The Independent Online

Sam Vesty might easily have been a professional cricketer.

"My claim to fame," he says, recalling his halcyon spell as a wicketkeeper-batsman for Leicestershire Seconds – a job not without its challenges, but a whole lot easier than being smithereened by opponents from the Pacific Islands or marmalised by club-mates in midweek brawls masquerading as training sessions – "is stumping Mohammad Azharuddin down the leg side. I remember him turning to me between deliveries and telling me: 'I'm giving this one the charge.' He certainly charged it. He also missed it. Happy days."

Until fairly recently, the 27-year-old's claim to fame on the rugby field was just a little harder to pin down, not least because he was spending so little time there. Marcelo Loffreda, the Argentine coach head-hunted by Leicester in 2007, gave Vesty precious few opportunities during his brief tenure at Welford Road, and the same went for Loffreda's successor, the South African strategist Heyneke Meyer. Making a mug of a high-class Indian batsman with a Test average of 45 was one thing. Nailing a place in the Tigers' starting line-up appeared to be quite another.

Then Meyer returned home, beset by family problems. Leicester now had one of their own in charge in the rough-and-ready shape of Richard Cockerill, and suddenly, the values of the coaching hierarchy dovetailed perfectly with the ways by which Vesty lived his rugby life. As a consequence, he has enjoyed a golden five months, catching the eye so regularly with his shrewd, ultra-reliable performances in midfield – most of them at outside-half, a handful at centre – that he has not only secured a place in the Premiership champions' first-choice team, but propelled himself into the England squad for the forthcoming two-Test series against Argentina. So where did it all go right?

"I suppose the change in the coaching set-up made the difference," he admits. "I wasn't playing much under Heyneke, and it got to the point where I had to speak honestly to him about my future. The last thing I wanted to do was leave the club – no matter how disheartened I might have felt, my love for Leicester was still strong – but ultimately, there's not much point being a rugby player if you're not playing rugby. When you're training all week with nothing at the end of it – when you're not even getting a shout – the sense of frustration grows.

"The way I saw it, Heyneke wanted to play a bash game. Simple would be the wrong word. Unscientific might be a better description. When he left, some of us felt it opened up an opportunity to play a better brand of rugby. We have some of the most skilful players in the world at this club and, speaking personally, I consider myself a ball-player who looks to put some width on a game and give the really dangerous steppers and runners – people like Dan Hipkiss and Geordan Murphy – the one-on-one chances they need. I guess the turning point was at Wasps, where we scored four tries. We also lost, but it was our first attacking bonus point of the season and I left thinking: 'If we can just get our defence sorted while attacking like that, we're onto a winner.'"

As it turns out, he thought right. Since that high-scoring defeat at Adams Park in mid-February, the Midlanders have barely stopped winning: 10 victories in 11 Premiership outings, including last week's title decider at Twickenham, plus Heineken Cup knock-out wins over Bath and Cardiff Blues, which earned them a place in this evening's Heineken Cup final against a dangerous Leinster side in Edinburgh and a shot at the double they last achieved under Dean Richards in 2002.

It was Richards, unarguably one of the half-dozen finest players in the 129-year history of the club, who railroaded the young, multi-talented Vesty (who also played tennis to county standard) into committing himself to the union game. "I was doing my stuff in the academy," Vesty remembers, "when Dean called me in one day and said: 'Right, I've awarded professional contracts to Ollie Smith, Harry Ellis and Dan Hipkiss. What do you think is stopping you getting a contract too?' I thought for a second and said: 'My kicking, perhaps; maybe my pace.' And he said: 'No, the thing that's stopping you is cricket. Are you going to give it up?' He could be quite intimidating, could Dean. It was a case of decision made."

In a way, though, the decision had been made long before, subconsciously. Born in the city and educated in Hinckley, which lies just outside, Vesty is a fourth-generation Tiger with club ancestry stretching back a century. His great-grandfather, Jack Dickens, wore the shirt before the First World War, while his grandfather found his way into the first team, albeit briefly, immediately after the Second World War. And then there was his father, Phil, who made the best part of 50 senior appearances in the 1970s. Unlike those who went before and came after, he was not a back. Far from it. Phil played as a prop, which seems inexplicable until his son explains it.

"My dad may have been a front-rower but my mum is 5ft 2in and about this big," he says, holding his finger and thumb an inch apart. "There's the genetics for you. I never saw my father play – he packed it in before I came along – and it's one of my sadnesses that my grandfather never had the chance to watch me. He died when I was quite young. It's quite a history though. I'm very proud of the family connection with this club."

Vesty has an instinctive understanding of all that Leicester stands for in the rugby world. In many ways, he is strikingly similar to Matt Perry, the finest England full-back of the modern era and still the most decorated, who understood the dynamics of his own home-town club, Bath, in precisely the same way. Vesty has spent a considerable portion of his senior career in the No 15 role – of his 118 starts spread over almost seven years, a majority have been at full-back – and like Perry, he is most effective at what might be called the nuts-and-bolts side of the game. Both natural games-players, both blessed with a mastery of the core skills that help compensate for a lack of straight-line speed, both as brave as lions in defence... the parallels are too obvious to ignore.

A week ago, Vesty's tackling won the Premiership title for Leicester. Time and again, London Irish sent the brick-outhouse Samoan centre Seilala Mapusua stampeding into the No 10 channel, assuming that Mapusua would be no more inconvenienced by a 14st outside-half than he might by a small wart on his neck. Time and again, Vesty stood firm. If any player in Europe has turned in a bolder, braver defensive performance this season, he did it without anyone watching.

"It's the kind of thing they breed in you at Leicester," he explains. "There's a peer-pressure element to it, definitely: if you're a bit shy on the work ethic front at this club, you get found out very quickly. I remember my first training session with the grown-ups. It was a Wednesday, Neil Back was laying all over the ball and I was getting absolutely smashed every time I went near it. As the session went on, I thought: 'We're only training, but this is the hardest game of rugby I've ever played.' It taught me that if you're not 100 per cent, you're nowhere.

"But the pride in my defensive game goes back to my dad. He drilled it into me that if I let someone run through me I'd be letting the team down, and that in rugby, no one likes players who don't tackle. I see myself primarily as a No 10, and traditionally No 10s were seen as weak defenders. People like Jonny Wilkinson changed that perception by making their tackles. If you do that, they have to stop running at you and think of something else. I know that if I hold my game together, opponents will struggle to find ways of attacking us."

Even opponents as dangerous as Leinster, who will bring the likes of Rob Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald, Gordon D'Arcy and that O'Driscoll fellow to the Murrayfield party today. "It's the biggest game of my career," Vesty acknowledged. "I feel nervous just saying it. I want us to play some rugby, to show the best of ourselves. The dog-fight comes naturally to us and if anyone wants to take us on that way, they can expect a battle. But if we can move the ball just that little wider, I think we'll really threaten."

Isn't this just a little namby-pamby by Leicester standards? Vesty smiles. "Don't get me wrong," he says. "How-ever we approach this final, there'll be some directness somewhere. There's nothing wishy-washy about us."