Davies the eternal pioneer

Zurich Premiership » The fight to make Leeds thrive is endless but exciting
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The Independent Online

Winning? Apparently it's easier read than done. Having forked out £20 on Clive Woodward's autobiography, Phil Davies was halfway through the former England head coach's treatise when a signed copy of Winning! landed on his desk last Wednesday. "Thanks for everything, as always, Clive.''

"I can relate to a lot of what Clive's saying,'' Davies says. "It's very interesting, particularly his attention to detail. He did a phenomenal job.'' As a 40-year-old coach charged with flying the union flag in the league heartland of Yorkshire, Davies is on a relentless quest for an edge. Aside from sessions with a management consultant in the Lake District, he is one of only 12 people in England to tackle coaching at level five, the apex, under his fellow Welshman Kevin Bowring.

Bowring, the head of the Rugby Football Union's élite coaching scheme, works closely with Ashridge, a leading business school. "It's an 18-month course involving assignments at Loughborough and Bath University, and all being well I'll graduate in November 2005,'' Davies said. "It's an awesome programme.''

In the meantime he has a huge task in sustaining and developing Leeds Tykes as a viable club in the Zurich Premiership. Today they are at Saracens, looking for their first win of the season following a torrid start with defeats by Gloucester, Leicester and Wasps. Davies says he has a "marvellous'' relationship with Gary Hetherington, the chief executive of the club, and Paul Caddick, the chairman. They cannot question his loyalty.

Earlier this year Davies, who was born in the mining village of Seven Sisters and made his name as a No 8 with Llanelli and Wales, was invited by the Welsh Rugby Union to apply for the post of national coach. "I didn't think I was ready for coaching at that level," he said. "I wouldn't have got the job, but in hindsight I wish I'd gone for the interview. The experience would have benefited me and Leeds.''

Davies moved to Headingley in 1996, taking the Tykes from National Division Three to the Premiership in seven seasons. Leeds only came into being in 1991 after the amalgamation of the Roundhay and Headingley clubs, and seven years later became part of the world's first rugby partnership, the creation of Leeds Rugby Limited, twinning the Tykes with the Rhinos rugby league team. The Rhinos are top of the Super League, poles apart from the union brethren.

"It's been a hell of journey,'' Davies said. "Next year will be my tenth season here and I'd like to take a bit of pride in that. Like Llanelli, Leeds has become a big part of my life, and I see it as a long-term project. We're going through a sticky patch but we've got too many good players for that to continue. The last thing we want is change. It's tough, but that's the nature of the beast. There's still a hell of a lot of work to do but I'm confident that we'll get there. We don't have a problem winning the ball but in keeping the bloody thing. I have to develop our attitude, but remember this is only our fourth season in the Premiership.''

Leeds lost their leading try-scorer, Dan Scarbrough, to Saracens, and could not offer Liam Botham a regular place - the son of Ian has rejoined the Rhinos - after signing Tim Stimpson from Perpignan and Iain Balshaw from Bath. "I'd brought Dan to Leeds from Wakefield and I didn't want to lose him, but he wanted a different challenge. He's been in Yorkshire all his life and fancied a move to London. Money also came into it. We've brought some quality players in but I'm not a star- chaser just for the sake of it. I want them to play for the name on the front of the jersey, not the one on their backs.

"Tim had a bad experience in France. He'd had a tumour removed from his knee and the rehab didn't go well. We've had to pick him up by his bootlaces. Iain was also in a poor state, but I hope to get him flying over the next couple of weeks.''

Leeds, the Rhinos that is, were furious that Iestyn Harris did not return to Headingley after he cut short his career in union with Cardiff and Wales. Clearly nobody can have a career in both codes simultaneously, though David Doherty, an outstanding prospect, has been playing union and league at Leeds. Last May he came on as a replacement against North-ampton, becoming at 17 the youngest player ever to appear in the Premiership.

"Once he gets to 18 he'll have to choose one or the other,'' Davies said. "You can't play both. Whether David opts for the Tykes or the Rhinos, the important thing is that he stays with Leeds.

"We have a tremendous academy and development programme and we're slowly, slowly building. A few years ago we had crowds of less than 1,000. When we played Gloucester last season we had nearly 8,000. That's not a bad growth rate. I compare us to Newcastle, except they had a five-year start on us. England's World Cup win has cemented union as a professional sport and there's a great opportunity to create a sustainable business. Our goal is to establish union as an élite sport in Yorkshire, and the longer we stay around the more people will get used to it.''

At Headingley Davies has provided every player with a zip-up diary, a concept that has been adopted by the Rhinos. "I call it our bible. It contains everything from a vision statement to training, coaching, codes of conduct and personal graphics of what they're trying to achieve. It's like a business manual setting out benchmarks.''

This is all very well, but after finishing fifth in their second season, only one club, Rotherham, were below Leeds four months ago, and what they need more than anything is a win.

"Of course I get disappointed,'' Davies said, "and sometimes I take a long, hard look at myself. I understand what it takes to get there, and we've gone about 75 per cent of the way. I believe we have a good enough squad and time will bear that out. I'm sure we can deliver.'' His bedside reading tells him so.