Howard has an answer but no one will heed it

Leicester's Australian coach fears the conflicts of interest make future even bleaker
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Andy Robinson, the England head coach, jabbed a finger in the Premiership's direction when he claimed his players were tired during the Six Nations' Championship. It is a view with which Pat Howard, his counterpart at Leicester Tigers, has some sympathy. But Howard, an Australian in charge of the most powerful English club, believes the notion of each party assisting the other is under more strain than ever.

"I've seen the ideal set-up," Howard says, "and it's in the southern hemisphere." Asked if the relationship between clubs and England is getting better or worse, Howard replies: "Probably when I was here as a player [from 1998 to 2002] it was working a little bit better." It is a damning indictment of all the subsequent years.

"It comes down to the season's structure," says the nuggety former centre who played for Montferrand in France before returning to Leicester as coach in 2004. "The ideal happens in the southern hemisphere, where you play competitions in a bloc. England have a lot of power, but the clubs are reasonably strong now. Until the conflict in the season is dealt with, all agreements go out the window. Will I see any improve-ment in my time in this country? I don't think so."

Howard's "time" with Leicester was recently extended by a year to the end of next season. Next Saturday his Tigers will attempt to win a Heineken Cup quarter-final against Bath at the Walkers Stadium. Last weekend Leicester fulfilled their customary role as the heart of England, supplying five players to the XV beaten by Ireland at Twickenham. The Irish had a Tiger, too - Geordan Murphy, who was thus the only man to return to Welford Road with the right sort of hangover.

"If I did watch any Six Nations games it was to see whether any of my Leicester guys got injured," Howard says, only a little tongue-in-cheek. He was too busy watching cricket to take in England's capitulation at the Stade de France two Sundays ago. Not any old cricket match, it has to be said, but one of the great one-dayers when South Africa scored 438 for 9 to overhaul the Baggy Greens in Johannesburg.

Still, when he says of England "It's not my team, I don't care", he means in the coaching rather than nationalistic sense. And his eight years spent in Europe make him much more than a fly-by-night observer.

He concurs with Robinson that several senior players should take a rest from England's June tour to Australia - a Wallaby team seeking to rediscover their self-belief might not argue - although Martin Corry, the Leic-ester and England captain, wants to go. "If we're going to win the World Cup," Corry said, "we need to take on and beat these southern-hemisphere teams." And would he like to lead England to the World Cup? "Yes," said Corry. "Whenever I weigh the negativity of being England captain against the honour, I am massively in credit."

Thank goodness for that, for if some Premiership sides are to be believed, the call of England gets ever more onerous to full-time professional players whose commitment to their clubs can stretch to as many as 35 matches a season plus friendlies.

Howard disagrees. "We want our players to play for their country," he says. And he points out that he has done his bit with Corry who - though he flouted the RFU's 11-week rest rule at the start of the season - was given a fortnight off over Christmas. It coincided with Leicester losing at Bristol. "It's cost us, but we know that Martin Corry is going to be playing 10 Tests a year," says Howard. "A player only has one body, and these blokes get run down - at times mentally, but more physically these days. Mentally, they love what they do. Physically, they need to be able to take away the bumps and bruises."

The hurtful fallout of England's poor Six Nations included Martin Johnson, as eminent a Tiger as they come, opining that the RFU-club academies are not bringing enough players through. Howard says he is "over the moon" with Leicester's academy, but does not dispute that the masterplan for England and club coaches to work in harmony is going off half-cocked.

He has seen Joe Lydon, the England attack coach, once this season, and the defence coach, Phil Larder, is almost as rare a visitor, having previously been a Tigers regular. "I find Andy Robinson easy to talk to," says Howard, "and he has made suggestions on where to play Ollie Smith and what we're doing with Lewis Moody. I'd love to work closer with the RFU. They have got skills coaches, and from the national academy Jim Mallinder has been up and Mike Friday did a session with the sevens. These guys have a different voice, different methodology."

Needless to say, however, the wish list posted on the wall of Leicester's training centre contains no mention of England or World Cups. It does include "winning our Heineken Cup pool", and there is a big black tick beside it. Shouldn't the mission statement for a club like Leicester to be to win the whole thing? "At the start of August you talk about top-four in the Premiership and qualifying for the knockout rounds in Europe," says Howard. "The one-off games are when the formbook goes out the window." In other words, perhaps, in this game it doesn't do to plan too far ahead.

Comments