It was a long time ago, but the memory is still fresh. At the back end of my playing career, I was lucky enough to spend three months or so at Leicester.
When I arrived at Welford Road, I thought I knew a good deal about the psychology of success: back home in Sydney, I'd been part of a Randwick team that had become very familiar with victory. But Leicester took the winning mentality to a level I hadn't previously experienced, and knowing them as I do, I am not surprised in the slightest to see them in today's Guinness Premiership final.
Much as I respect London Irish and their achievement in getting this far I expect the Tigers to win the title for the sixth time in 11 years. Yes, they have next weekend's Heineken Cup final against Leinster to think about; yes, they have played a lot of hard rugby just lately and are certain to be feeling it physically. But their squad is so strong, their habits so good and their will to win so powerful, it is hard to see them missing the boat this evening.
Far from wondering how they'll cope with playing two major finals in seven days, they'll be revelling in the challenge. With Richard Cockerill – one of their own – now in charge of the show, they're probably even more bloody-minded now than when they last won the Premiership in 2007.
There weren't too many pundits who saw Richard as a clear first choice for the head coach's role when Heyneke Meyer returned to South Africa for personal reasons at the turn of the year. When he was playing for England, he had a streak of the pantomime villain about him: if he was as aggressive as anyone, there was a touch of comedy about some of his antics. But I remember speaking to him during his brief stay in France a couple of years back and quickly reaching the conclusion that he was a good deal smarter than most people seemed to think.
I've spoken before about non-negotiables: things that have become embedded in the methodology of a rugby club because they fit the environment and have stood the test of time. Richard spent so much of his playing career at the sharp end of the Leicester operation that he developed an instinctive understanding of those non-negotiables. He is building on the strengths of the club and working well with Matt O'Connor, my fellow Australian, who has tweaked the Tigers' attacking game with fresh ideas.
London Irish have come up with some ideas of their own over the last nine months, and with the Armitage brothers playing as well as they are, it would be dangerous to write them off. Both remind me of outstanding members of the current Wallaby side: Sterling Mortlock in Delon's case, George Smith in Steffon's. When Sterling first started with the ACT Brumbies, he was a full-back blessed with all the appropriate skills. When he took those skills with him to the outside centre position, he quickly established himself as a world-class performer. Delon can do the same: in fact, I'd be playing him at 13 in international rugby as of now. He's big, strong, fast, kicks well and has some mongrel about him: not to put too fine a point on it, he doesn't mind hurting people (in a legitimate way, of course). What else do you need in an outside centre?
Steffon has really come on. I was a little sceptical about him at first but, having watched him closely, there is no doubt that he provides an excellent back row with its cutting edge. Like Smith, he has something different about him, and in top-level rugby, being different helps. Unlike Smith, his work rate is open to question, but as he gets himself fitter, he'll become more effective for longer.
If I were coaching England, I'd have stuck with him last autumn, rather than dropped him like a hot plate. His Test debut against the Pacific Islands wasn't all it might have been, but if the selectors thought he was good enough to play then, why not keep the faith? When Matt Giteau won his first cap for the Wallabies, off the bench with 10 minutes to go, he dropped his first pass, threw two balls along the floor and then got himself turned over. It was not a great start, but who cares now?Reuse content