Leicester last stop for visionary Howard

Australian who frees the Tigers' spirit plans for life after Welford Road, with not a rugby ball in sight
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The Independent Online

A funny thing happened to Leicester at Kingsholm last week. In their impressive 28-13 victory over Gloucester, which increased their lead at the top of the Zurich Premiership, not a single point was scored by the forwards, not even that old favourite of a stick-it-up-your-jumper, impossible-to-stop, rolling-maul try by Neil Back. How can this be?

Pat Howard, the Tigers backs coach, says he is working with a group of talented individuals, beginning with the in-form half-back partnership of Harry Ellis and Andy Goode. Howard reckons Goode is good enough to play for an England who can choose between Jonny Wilkinson and Charlie Hodgson, and had it come from anyone else you would have dismissed it as nepotism.

"I know it's a competitive position, but Goode is right up there," Howard said."Leicester are not scoring tries by accident, and England should wonder why so many come from our wings. That's always a good sign that the stand-off is in control. Goode is relishing the leadership in running our back line, and although he's only 24 he's won European Cups and Premierships.

"We've been up against guys who play for England, and I can't see what part of Goode's game wouldn't suit Test rugby... he reads the game, he tackles, he kicks goals from 55 metres.

"When Leicester went up to Newcastle we scored six tries. There's an argument for him to be considered."

Goode will be a key figure at Welford Road today, where Leicester aim to blitz Biarritz in their latest assault on the Heineken Cup. At the end of October the Tigers suffered a mind-numbing 23-8 defeat in south-west France which seriously threatened their prospects. Much was made of the fact that Leicester's preparation had been interrupted by a number of their England players attending Buckingham Palace to receive OBEs, while Martin Johnson visited Singapore for a testimonial dinner, one of a series of globetrotting engagements in the most lucrative benefit season in rugby history.

"There might have been a bit of disruption, but our most senior professionals were involved and they knew how to deal with it," Howard said. "We deserved to lose because we had a bad day at the office. It happens. I'm sure we'll have another one at some stage." But not today.

It is understood that in pre-season training in Scotland the Tigers fought among themselves. "Most of our guys are involved in punch-ups most weeks," Howard said. "Our training is incredibly physical, its part of the culture of the club. There's a lot of contact, and any player joining Leicester, no matter where they come from, is surprised at the intensity. I haven't seen it at any other club."

Leicester are rarely caught twice. They lost at Sale on the opening day of the season and haven't been beaten in the Premiership since, although during the Six Nations their cast of understudies will have to perform. After losing to Biarritz, Howard said he expected maximum points from the matches against Wasps, who happen to be the Heineken Cup holders. The Tigers did not get bonus points, but they got two massive victories. "There are a few things we could have done better," Howard said. "We weren't totally satisfied."

After Biarritz, Leicester finish the pool stage against Calvisano in Italy. "If we can get nine points from the two games we'll have a home quarter-final," Howard said. "Wasps are a good side, but they can't defend everywhere. We did our homework. Their defence is all or nothing and when they miss, that's it.

"Biarritz have different defensive systems. They're very well organised, and we'll have to adapt to deal with them. There's a long way to go, but there's not a side in Europe that we fear."

Like the former hooker Richard Cockerill - "our sessions have not become less feisty since he's come back" - Howard rejoined Leicester from Montferrand. Capped 20 times by the Wallabies and then inexplicably ignored, Howard, who was born in Sydney, originally joined Leicester in 1998, and his three seasons at centre coincided with three Premiership titles and the club's first Heineken Cup, when they beat Stade Français 34-30 in Paris. It was no coincidence: he was the members' player of the season, the players' player of the season and the Premiership player of the season.

He returned to Australia to play for the ACT Brumbies - he was stand-off against the Lions in 2001 - but failed to break back into the Test team.

Now 31, he is still full of running. He re-signed for Leicester for two seasons, and there was talk of him as a player-coach. "But because I haven't played Test rugby in the last 18 months I couldn't get a player's visa. I miss it terribly." Spectators will get a chance to see him in action in Leicester's annual match against the Barbarians.

Today Howard's father, Jake, who played tighthead prop for Australia and has been coaching in Japan, will be at Welford Road. Jake's father, Cyril Towers, had been a Test centre for the Wallabies, and the dynasty could be prolonged by Pat's 19-year-old brothers, twins Tom and Dave, who play club rugby in Brisbane.

With such a pedigree you might think Howard would be interested in a coaching role in Australia. "I've no interest whatsoever," he said, "I've been involved in rugby for a long, long time and my goal is to get out of it. When you look at people like Alan Solomons [who lost his job at Northampton] and Rod Kafer [who lost his job at Saracens] you appreciate that this is not the most stable of careers."

Howard has a pharmacy business in Sydney which requires his attention. "When I leave Leicester next year that will be the end of it. As my dad says, when you've been to the mountain there's nowhere else to go."

His departure will leave Leicester, who have any number of people to coach the forwards, with a severe headache.