Brian Ashton: Cockerill can crow if Tigers continue to earn stripes

Tackling The Issues

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The Independent Online

Just 80 minutes or so of rugby separate the four remaining contenders in the Heineken Cup from a much-coveted place in next month's final at Twickenham. We are deep in "no second chance" territory now and it is in this precise situation that the mind can play some bizarre tricks. But while the ties in Dublin and Bordeaux are the principal business of the weekend, it is worth reflecting momentarily on the comments of a player and a coach from teams at opposite ends of the Aviva Premiership table.

With one league game remaining and his club in a precarious position once again, the Newcastle outside-half Jimmy Gopperth took time out to speak of the negative effects of fighting against relegation and to express the opinion – often heard at this stage of a campaign from those whose Premiership status is under threat – that the whole up-down system should be scrapped. Gopperth talked not only about the greater physicality he believes relegation has brought to domestic rugby, but also of an increased negativity, indicating that there is an inevitable focus on defence rather than attack in pursuit of the single objective of not losing.

This is a policy favoured by many in top-level sport when danger is apparent: to cut out risk, or at the very least dramatically reduce it, as a means of achieving success. I'd go so far as to describe this as the common mindset. My view? I think regular readers of this column are well aware of my take on so-called "risk" and the restrictive, formulaic approach adopted by so many teams who find themselves in trouble.

Meanwhile, the Leicester director of rugby Richard Cockerill – a sometimes feisty but always genial character in my experience – offered some fascinating thoughts after his team's deserved victory over Harlequins. The Tigers are riding a massive performance tidal wave at the moment. When, as I presume was the case, Cockerill was asked to explain this surge in form, he said: "We do not have a philosophy. We are not a boring side; we can play in different ways. We just want to be good at everything."

It sounds like a pretty effective, all-consuming philosophy to me and it was fantastic to hear someone say it out loud. I'm pretty sure Cockerill meant to say "We want to be the best at everything," but maybe that's just semantics. What Leicester are developing is a clear strategy geared towards an open-ended way of playing: the construction of a team for all seasons, if you like. They have worked assiduously to hone all the tools in their box, each of which can be selected when the situation demands.

I'll wager that the foundations of this approach are twofold: the reliable practice of whatever Leicester consider the "basics" and an exceptional workrate, both with and without the ball. Competency in these areas allows them to set their own optimum cruising speed: a speed with which they can cope, even when really stretched, but which most opponents struggle to handle. For many in sport – indeed, in all walks of life – this is the ultimate: having achieved it, they sit back, relax and take their foot off the pedal of improvement, only to be surprised by the sight of others sailing serenely by. Knowing Cockerill as I do, there is no danger of this happening on his watch. I for one will not be at all surprised to see Leicester play a significant role in next season's Heineken Cup.

But not in this season's, as two teams from Leicester's own pool, Clermont Auvergne and Ulster, have fought their way into the last four. Will they take one more step? It is very difficult to predict, because the proximity of the cherished goal of a European final makes preparation for this stage of a tournament extremely sensitive. I just hope none of the sides still involved have spent any part of this week dwelling on potential future diversions: if they have, it is a recipe for under-performance.

The key is to get the players focusing on the task in hand at each moment of the game. Mistakes will happen but must not be dwelt upon: it is the next job that is of supreme importance. I should also say that spending too much time analysing the opposition rather than establishing a positive mood about how your own team will play can also put a side on the back foot.

I well recall travelling with Bath to Kingsholm for a cup semi-final with Gloucester during the 1990s. All the pre-match hype had centred on the crucial importance of our forwards achieving parity with the home pack, and by taking too much notice of that hype, we allowed it to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The game descended into the very arm-wrestle Gloucester desired. Somehow, we took the tie into extra time, at which point we left the close-quarter obsession behind, sought some space in which to play, ran in a couple of tries and won.

Can Edinburgh re-summon the remarkable collective commitment they showed in beating Stade Toulouse in the last eight and impose it on Ulster? Through their back-five forwards and half-back, they will try to keep the tempo high, mix order with chaos and provide their stand-off Greig Laidlaw with opportunities to orchestrate a game played alternately in the faces of the Ulster defenders and behind the backs of his marauding forwards.

We can assume that Ulster will not spend the vast majority of the match without the ball, as they did in winning their quarter-final in Limerick. No doubt their departing coach Brian McLaughlin is hoping that while the level of defensive ferocity is maintained, the likes of Ruan Pienaar will conjure up more of an attacking game.

On paper, Leinster have the toughest assignment in taking on Clermont Auvergne in France, although they travel armed with a good deal of knowledge provided by their coach Joe Schmidt, who spent four years assisting his fellow New Zealander and good friend Vern Cotter at Clermont. Leinster's quarter-final against Cardiff Blues was a stroll in the park, albeit one that reminded us that their desire to be the best passing side in Europe is not an idle one. Tomorrow, they will need their less subtle skills to stand up against opponents who, with their formidable presence up front, squeezed the lifeblood from Saracens last time out.

That Clermont pack is supported by a multi-talented back division boasting such explosive runners as Wesley Fofana, Sitiveni Sivivatu and Julien Malzieu and it makes the Frenchmen the most adaptable of the title challengers. To win, Leinster must secure enough front-foot ball to fashion the type of game that suits them best, which is no easy matter. The romantics will be yearning for an all-Irish final, but my head tells me it will be a showdown between Ulster and Clermont.

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