Toby Booth: 'I know the buttons to press'

Once an electrician, Toby Booth has taken London Irish to within touching distance of the Premiership title. Ahead of today's final, the coach tells Chris Hewett how he gave the Exiles their spark
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The Independent Online

Toby Booth was not the first rugby coach in history to receive late-night phone calls from stag-partying players sloshing their way around the 24-hour bars of a Spanish coastal resort.

It goes with the territory, along with interminable video analysis sessions, depressingly healthy lunch options and high blood pressure. He may, however, have been the first to take such calls seriously. "They kept telling me: 'Toby, it has to be you'," he recalls. "After listening to them, I realised I had the support I needed to go ahead and do it."

The "it" in question was the top job at London Irish, recently vacated by the Australian coach Brian Smith, who, much to the exasperation of the club's board, had joined the England back-room team after being head-hunted in a cavalier fashion wholly characteristic of the Rugby Football Union. Smith and Booth had worked exceptionally well together: if such a thing as a think tank existed in the Premiership, it was to be found at the Exiles' training ground in Sunbury-on-Thames. But that did not automatically mean that Booth would be as effective on his own.

"I had to ask myself some very serious questions," he admits. "I hadn't played in the Premiership, still less at international level, and while I had every confidence in my ability as a coach, there was this thing itching away in the back of my mind about the unconventional way my career had developed. The gap between the professional game and the rest of rugby had grown massively – it's still growing, ever faster – and I had to decide whether someone from my background, the 'man in the street' if you like, could make it work. Those messages from the players helped me make up my mind."

As it turns out, the players knew a thing or two. Booth's first season in the big chair could hardly have been more impressive: London Irish strung together half a dozen consecutive league victories to establish a position towards the top of the Premiership, then recovered from a scratchy period through the Six Nations to secure a place in the play-offs. Even when they were playing badly, they never missed out on a losing bonus point; even when they looked beaten at half-time, their superior fitness proved that looks can be deceptive. As a consequence of all this, they take on Leicester in this evening's Premiership final at Twickenham. Not bad for a club with a small professional staff, operating on a less than extravagant budget.

Now 38, Booth played his rugby in Kent, for Folkestone and Blackheath. For much of the time, he was a back-row forward; for some of it, he was a hooker. He was also an electrician by trade, although "rugby always came first". In the mid-1990s, he enrolled as a biology student at St Mary's College in Twickenham – "Rugby and studying was better than rugby and being a sparky" – and it was here that his coaching took off. He quickly became involved with the England Students set-up, followed by England Under-21s, and from there he joined London Irish to help oversee the new academy set-up.

It may well be that of all the academies now in operation, the London Irish version has been the most productive – both in terms of delivery rate at Premiership level and in providing players for the senior national team. Certainly, Booth considers his success to be rooted in his academy experience. "Environments are crucial," he says, "and in the academy environment, a coach not only puts his rugby philosophy to the test, but also builds relationships with people who, if they are handled properly, will go on to play a significant part in the development of the club. There is very little anyone can tell me that I don't already know about those players who came through the academy. I understand what makes them tick and what buttons to press.

"I value these relationships highly, because I've invested a lot of myself in maintaining them. It's why I take it personally when a player leaves." A player like Shane Geraghty, the brilliant young midfield talent who is leaving for Northampton? "Yes, I take that very personally," he replies. "My first reaction is to wonder whether it's a failing on my part. But one player's decision is another's opportunity, isn't it? We've signed Ryan Lamb from Gloucester and I'm excited about his potential. He was here just the other day – in fact, he drove into the car park just as Shane was practising his goal-kicking. Ryan waited for him to miss one and then gave him some stick."

Booth has been known to wield some stick himself. "We had it out after we lost to Bourgoin," he admits, referring to his team's European Challenge Cup quarter-final pratfall at the Madejski Stadium last month. "But that rather emotional discussion was driven by the players themselves as much as it was by me. They knew they'd got it wrong that night, but by the same yardstick, I'd made a cock-up or two myself.

"From my perspective, the most important thing about saying things you would rather not have to say is that they are said behind closed doors. I'm not quite in the Arsène Wenger league when it comes to defending my own, but I'm getting there. The players need to know that I'll always back them in public, not slaughter them with criticism. If they can bank on that, they're happy for me to be open and honest with them in private. It's about respect, about treating people as you'd want to be treated. I know no other way."

Had things turned out differently 13 months ago, London Irish might have lost Booth to the England set-up before they lost Smith. Brian Ashton, then head coach of the national team, had identified him as a forwards strategist of rich potential, and was quietly hatching a plan to bring him on board along with two other newcomers, the Gloucester skills specialist Denis Betts and the Northampton kicking technician Paul Grayson. That little idea evaporated when Ashton was given the heave-ho by assorted grandees on the RFU's management board. Could it have worked? We'll never know.

What we do know is that, under Booth, the Exiles have made it their business to upset the Premiership applecart, much to the amusement of those who have grown tired of the Leicester-Wasps hegemony and consider a realignment of power long overdue. For a while, Sale seemed the most likely to insert themselves between the two most successful clubs of the professional era, but they failed to build on the title they won in 2006 and are now in the painful throes of reconstruction. Gloucester? Not up to it. Bath? There is still something missing. Harlequins have the ambition, but do not yet possess a squad to match; Northampton are at least two years shy of fulfilment. The most recent evidence suggests that London Irish have stolen a march on everyone.

A couple of things lead Booth to believe his side will at least be at the races when they play the biggest match in the club's history today. For one thing, he has complete confidence in the players' fitness. "I met Allan Ryan, our conditioning coach, at college," he says. "We're good friends, we've shared a lot – our sons were born a day apart – and I happen to think he's outstanding at what he does." For another, he is certain that his charges are better equipped to meet the demands of this occasion as a result of their involvement in last season's Heineken Cup semi-final against Toulouse, which they lost narrowly.

"To compete against a side that good, to play them at their own game and take them all the way – well, it certainly put a tick in the philosophy box," he continues. "But more than that, there was a subliminal effect on our self-belief. How many times have we found ourselves up against it this season, but shown the wherewithal to work our way back into the game? I've lost count. That semi-final gave us a massive lift."

Judging by the esteem in which he is held by his squad – and by rival coaches up and down the country – it will be a surprise if Booth is not coaching at Test level by the time the 2015 World Cup comes around.

But he will get there under his own steam, in the manner of his own choosing. Young enough to talk the players' language, he has no use for management-speak. His skill as a communicator is based first and foremost on the notion that rugby teams work best when they embrace family values. "Most coaches will tell you that players understand three things: getting paid, getting beasted on the training field, and getting picked," he says. "But there's more to it than that. What's really important is the detail in between."

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