Davies confident to raise the bar with high-flying Leeds

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The Independent Online

It is five years, give or take a month, since Jon Callard scored the try, the conversion and the four penalty goals that edged Bath past Brive in a riveting Heineken Cup final that should have been played at the Alamo rather than Bordeaux. That win secured a first European title for an English club. Precious few will recall Leeds winning on the same day - 33-15 away to Nottingham in some two-bit division of the Rugby Football Union's labyrinthine league structure - for in 1998, the Yorkshiremen were every bit as anonymous as their competitive surroundings.

If the Leeds Director of Rugby, Phil Davies, remembers much about that victory beside the M1, he must be one of the saddest statistical obsessives in Christendom. But he knows all about Callard's heroic contribution to the greatest rearguard action in Heineken Cup history, not least because the former Bath full-back frequently reminds him of it during lulls in conversation at Headingley. The two men have worked together for a season-and-a-half now, and it says something about the shifting sands of professional club rugby that Leeds have beaten Bath to a place in this competition.

The very thought of it thrills Davies, but it unnerves him too. "If I'm honest," said the Welshman after the tournament launch at Twickenham this week, "I don't think we know as a club exactly what we're getting in to here. Jon understands the scale of the challenge, obviously; he's been there and faced the monster. But I suspect it's gone straight over the heads of most of the players, and they'll have to wise up pretty quickly."

By common consent, Leeds are in the least rigorous of the six groups, which would be reassuring but for the fact that it is their own presence that gives the pool its soft appearance. Davies is no quitter, but even he regards the trip to Toulouse in six days' time as "potentially painful". The reigning champions have marmalised more experienced teams than Leeds since winning the inaugural title in 1996. They have put 70 points on Newport, 60 on Munster, 50-odd on Harlequins and 40-odd on Leinster - and with eight World Cup players back in circulation, the word "potentially" may be too hopeful by half.

"I also like the look of Edinburgh," continued Davies, warming to his doleful theme. "Todd Blackadder has done a tremendous job there, and word has it that they are playing some excellent rugby."

So far, so glum. But Davies is not a particularly fatalistic sort. He may have spent his active international career deep in the nooks and crannies of an increasingly under-powered Welsh pack - no fun for anyone, except a dyed-in-the-wool masochist - but his work at Headingley these last half-dozen years has been stamped with the spirit of optimism.

"Tenacity and commitment - these are the marks of this Leeds team," he said. "If we show the best of ourselves in the Heineken Cup, it won't really matter if we win four pool matches, two pool matches or no pool matches. This is our first appearance in the competition, and the experience we gain will be invaluable. I feel humble at the thought of us being here. I hope the players feel the same before each match - and then get out there and perform without fear."

Davies would give his right arm to put one over the Neath-Swansea Ospreys, who are coached by his old friend and rival, Lyn Jones, when the sides meet tomorrow. "It's extra-special, isn't it?" he smiled, looking ahead to the opening fixture in the Ridings. "It will be good to see Lyn again. He was a really fine player - a thinker and an innovator - and he coaches as he played. He loves expansive rugby, a style that is physical and direct, but fast and imaginative at the same time. I hope the Ospreys move onwards and upwards and become a strong, successful regional side. But not just yet. For the next few weeks at least, I hope they're useless."

If Jones faces a difficult task in welding together the disparate elements of Neath and Swansea, plus the odd signing from elsewhere - Elvis Seveali'i, the Samoan wing recruited from Bath; Andy Newman, the second row bombed out by Northampton a couple of seasons back - Davies knows pretty much how he feels. Having developed a tough, functional Leeds team that surprised their elders and betters last term, he returned to the drawing board during the summer to plan a whole new approach to this current campaign.

"We felt we needed to freshen up, to bring something different to the party," he explained. "We were pretty effective last season, but pretty one-dimensional too. I took a conscious decision to change our style of rugby, to give us a Plan B. That can be disruptive, especially when a World Cup deprives you of some key players and injuries kick in at the wrong time. That is why we've been a little off-colour since the start of the season."

It is not difficult to see his point. Mark Regan was away with England, Diego Albanese with Argentina, Aaron Persico with Italy, Alix Popham with Wales, Gavin Kerr and Gordon Ross with Scotland. Tom Palmer, their outstanding line-out forward, was on the casualty list, and had plenty of company. In mid-October, Leeds were 16 men light for one reason or another. Under the circumstances, they did well to chisel out victories over Saracens and Leicester, and secure a bonus point against Gloucester at Kingsholm.

Now, Davies and his fellow selectors are in Full Monty mode. Palmer is fit - a serious bonus - and the World Cup high society are beginning to link with the likes of Phil Christophers, David Rees, Andre Snyman, Duncan Hodge and Clive Stuart-Smith, all of whom are in their first season with the club. Leeds are a work in progress, constructed from the bottom up by a young, gifted and enthusiastic coach who intends to finish what he has started before heading for the green, green grass of home.

Strongly linked with the Welsh national job, before Steve Hansen was appointed to succeed Graham Henry and again now Hansen has confirmed his decision to leave after the 2004 Six Nations' Championship, Davies patiently but firmly rejects the notion. "I spoke to the Welsh Rugby Union a while ago, and I keep in touch with various people there," he said. "But they know I have four years left on my contract here, and they also know I might want to stay for another eight if that is what it takes to establish this club as a top-three Premiership concern. I want to bring success to Headingley, above and beyond anything else. Wales? Maybe one day, but not yet."