'Shrek' seeks happy ending as Leeds see the big picture

Staying up will pay dividends for club and keep Fourie in the England frame
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Hendre Fourie has been lying awake at night, picturing the moment he and his Leeds Carnegie team-mates make themselves safe from relegation. And the man they nickname Shrek is hoping the fairytale ending will unfold at around 5pm this afternoon.

"It's imagining the feeling of playing and winning that vital game," says the South African flanker, whose performances this season have earned him an England call-up. "It's picturing being on the pitch and the final whistle goes and we're staying up. Between now and then, though, we've got to focus on getting the job done."

The banner outside Leeds's training ground, advertising the match with bottom club Worcester, shouts "Survival Battle" in capital letters with an exclamation mark for added emphasis. Fourie accepts that for the first time since his side won promotion last summer, Leeds are favourites to win. If Worcester lose and do not get two bonus points at Headingley today, it will send them down to the Championship after six years in the Premiership. If Leeds can extend their stay to a second year, they will become full shareholders, which they say will be worth an extra million pounds a season.

There is an added incentive for the 30-year-old Fourie, a late bloomer with broad shoulders and a face to match (hence the nickname) who cheerfully admits to an unremarkable career in South Africa before he joined Rotherham in 2005, and Leeds two years later. "England can't pick players from the second division," he says. "Leeds have to stay in the Premiership or I can wave that goodbye."

Having played for the Saxons in Italy in February, Fourie is a contender for England's 44-man senior tour to Australia and New Zealand in June. He was a travelling reserve when Martin Johnson's side lost in Paris last month. Another reserve, Matt Banahan, pinched a spare jersey, which Fourie is planning to collect when Leeds go to Bath on Saturday week. Out of "loyalty" Fourie has extended his Carnegie contract to 2012, come what may.

"I cannot say I am as good as [Springbok flankers] Schalk Burger and Heinrich Brossouw but I am knocking on the door," he says. "Those players got their opportunities and took them with both hands. I never played in the Currie Cup, never mind the Super 14. But if I get the nod for England, if I get my foot in the door, I usually get it stuck and stay there. In the Premiership I'm rating myself among the top players, if it's OK for me to say that." Few would deny it, certainly not Neil Back, Leeds' head coach and one of England's modern greats in Fourie's openside position. Even if the recent, extraordinary move by the Premiership to instruct referees to protect the tackled player has reined in Fourie's ball-ripping skills.

Last Sunday's victory at London Irish set Leeds up for this possible clincher, though it was the narrow defeat at Saracens and win over Wasps in the autumn which told Fourie they had a chance. Three straight wins in February and March convinced the rest of us. The entire effort has been shot through with Tiger stripes: Andy Key, the director of rugby, came with Back from Leicester in 2008; captain Marco Wentzel followed last summer.

"Last year in the second division was Backy's transition year," says Fourie. "Now he's moulding himself into one of the great coaches of the country. His player management skill has picked up a lot. He has started to know how to work with certain players, what works for you. He can be serious or he can crack a few jokes. But he is always composed in the way he speaks. When we won at London Irish he said, 'Relish the victory, but look after yourselves'. That team talk made us focus on this week. There were a couple of beers on the bus back but not a piss-up like you might have after a long trip. Backy's big thing is, 'Do the right thing'."

A well-known Leicester director, one Sir Clive Woodward, sent Back a text this week mocking his assertion that staying up would be better than winning the World Cup. Back just shrugged and continued to put his faith in Shrek.