Homegrown Vesty finds his place

Investment in fourth-generation Tiger pays off after experiment with full-back role
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The Independent Online

In the thumbnail personal details they describe him as 6ft 3in, although Sam Vesty would struggle to make 6ft in his boots. But there is no denying that the player they also describe as a utility back has grown considerably in stature, in front of the very eyes of the best supported club in the Guinness Premiership.

It wasn't that Vesty used to have sand kicked in his face, but after Leicester, who were accustomed to having Springboks performing at No 10, turned to him to play the pivotal role, he would often look young, vulnerable and exposed. "I thought I was doing all right at fly- half but I probably wasn't experienced enough," said Vesty.

He was no Joel Stransky, that's for sure, or even an Andy Goode, but since the Tigers experimented with him at full-back Vesty's game has blossomed. At the end of a season which once again saw an empty cupboard at Welford Road, he was named the members' player of the year, a notable honour.

"I just seem to have slipped into the role quite comfortably. I certainly feel more at home now, although I won't stop looking over my shoulder. There's always a lot of young players pushing hard."

Today he is up against Sale and Jason Robinson in what is a keynote match even at this embryonic stage of the season. In May, Sale bamboozled Leicester in the Premiership final at Twickenham, winning 45-20 and putting the tin cap on another Tigers campaign of underachievement.

However, it wasn't that showpiece embarrassment that stuck in the craw, or the loss to Wasps in the semi-final of the Powergen Cup. What really did for Leicester, and left them in a state of shock, was losing 15-12 to Bath in the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup at the Walkers Stadium, where the visitors finished the match with 13 men.

"That was the worst feeling I've ever had," Vesty said. "Bath didn't play that well but for some reason we didn't front up and we handed them the game. Nobody could believe it. We had always been known as the team for the big occasions, but we simply weren't performing. We've got to put that right and I think we're getting there."

So why did Leicester, arguably the most professional and meanest-nosed outfit in the land, who took Premiership titles for granted and Heineken Cups with which to toast them, develop the alarming habit of failing the acid test? "I think physically we weren't at our peak when we needed to be," said Vesty. "For those big games you have to be fresh, not exhausted or with people carrying injuries. Being fully fit at the right time is the key. There's also a mental factor. We use a sports psychologist but I don't think the problem is that deep, it's just difficult to pinpoint. We can play well yet something is not clicking."

If pre-season form means anything, Leicester were encouraged by their recent victories over Toulon and, in particular, away to Stade Français and Munster, the European champions whom they meet in the pool stages of the Heineken Cup. In beating Munster 26-18 in Cork, Vesty, a try-scorer, was the man of the match. He has been good enough at full-back to persuade the coach, Pat Howard, to play Geordan Murphy on the wing.

"Geordan's an attacking genius and one of the best full-backs in the world," Vesty said. "He's helped me a lot. We watch videos and he tells me what he would have done in such a situation and what I should be doing. I'm now more confident in the role, especially my timing coming into the line." In defence, it is possible that Vesty, one of the best tacklers in the Premiership, has the edge over the Irishman.

If the 24-year-old England A international (or Saxons as they are now called) feels he has finally arrived, it is high time. Vesty, Leicester born and bred, was destined to play for the Tigers, following his father, grandfather and great-grandfather. With his brothers Ben and Tom, Sam used to work the scoreboard at Welford Road.

A product of the excellent John Cleveland College - former pupils include Dean Richards, Graham Rowntree and Ollie Smith - and Loughborough University, Vesty was first picked up by the Leicester academy when he was 16 and offered a contract, at £7,000 a year, three years later. "Was I happy? Oh God, yeah. It was a lot of money for me then."

Despite the setbacks, Leicester remain unbeaten in the league at Welford Road since January 2004. The oddest thing about today's potential blockbuster is that Sale failed to sell their allocation of tickets, which means there will be even more Tigers supporters than usual. And some things don't change. In recently handing out a three-week ban to Louis Deacon for use of the boot, Judge Jeff Blackett, the game's top disciplinarian, pointed out, somewhat alarmingly, that Leicester "admit administering pain at the ruck".

It is footwork of a different kind that concerns Vesty. Robin-son, the Sale captain, has not ruled out a return to the blighted Red Rose cause. "I don't see why he shouldn't play for England again," Vesty said. "He's still got the best feet in the Premiership. Perhaps he's lost a touch of pace but the skills are all there. Fair play to him, what he did in Test rugby was awesome.

"I'd love to be there one day. You've got to back yourself. If you don't think you're pretty good, you're in the wrong job."