Toby Flood: 'Rugby has become a fight on the floor'

Toby Flood talks to Chris Hewett about his comeback from injury, Leicester's Heineken Cup chances and why he's determined to bring the flair back into the game
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The Independent Online

It did not take Toby Flood, one of the brighter sparks in an English game dimly illuminated for the most part by human equivalents of the energy-saving light bulb, more than a few minutes to appreciate the sweep of rugby's changes since he inspired Leicester to a Heineken Cup semi-final victory over Cardiff Blues last May – a match in which he created two tries with his soft-handed subtlety before rupturing an Achilles tendon.

"It's become a real fight on the floor, there's a lot of confusion amongst the players and quick ball is a rarity," he says, bluntly. Does this mean Flood buys the argument that it is now impossible to play positively? "God no," he replies. "I can't imagine thinking in that way."

This is good news indeed, for if the likes of Flood and his kindred adventurers – the Shane Geraghtys, the Danny Ciprianis – give up on the union code's attacking potential, the rest of us may as well give up with them and spend our weekends growing runner beans. The 24-year-old midfielder, born in the same small corner of Surrey as his old mentor Jonny Wilkinson but hardly to be bracketed with the Chosen One in terms of approach, believes the imagination will always have a role to play in the sport, whatever daft set of laws might be imposed upon it by the International Rugby Board.

"You don't have to look too hard at the statistics to see that some teams have become quite conservative as a result of the new arrangements," he says, referring to the change of emphasis at the contact area that allows the tackler to clamp his hands on the ball, provided he is on his feet.

"Saracens are top of the Premiership, but I don't think they'd claim to be playing an expansive game. In my view, though, there are still possibilities. You have to be incredibly precise: if you're careless with your presentation on the deck or your colleagues are lazy in the clear-out, you have no chance of getting away with it. But it doesn't mean you have to kick all day long. Where there's a will, there must be a way."

Flood's way may not convince those who remain deeply suspicious of his gentle touch – people who would not pick him for a club fixture, let alone for England – but it is never less than enthralling. Chief among the fascinations now is his immediate future at Test level. Will Martin Johnson name him in his squad for the forthcoming Six Nations Championship? Flood certainly plays for the right club, England now being run by the "Leicester Mafia". There again, it has still to be established that he is the manager's kind of player.

"I can't begin to think about England," he responds when asked if he feels ready for the rigours of Test rugby after six long months of incapacitation. "Have you seen our Christmas programme at Leicester? After this weekend's game, we have hard Premiership matches against Sale and Saracens. Then it's Wasps at Welford Road. The only thing that concerns me at present is getting back in the groove. It was a bad injury – my first bad one, which made it harder to get my head around – and it takes time to rediscover your sense of timing."

The throwaway reference to "this weekend's game" does not begin to capture the significance of it. Clermont Auvergne, the lavishly financed outfit who have turned the Big Four of French rugby – Toulouse, Stade Français, Biarritz, Perpignan – into a Big Five, put 40 points past Leicester six days ago and rather fancy their chances of recording a follow-up win in tonight's return fixture, if not victory on a similar scale. If they manage it, the English champions will find themselves down among the Heineken Cup deadbeats.

"We've made our analysis of last week's match and while Clermont were good, the crux of it was that we made some pretty horrible mistakes, many of them in and around the contact area," Flood admits. "Our errors allowed them to go from three points to 10 to 15, all in a short space of time, and once we allowed them a taste of it, we found them difficult to hold. The Welford Road factor should work in our favour, but we have to understand how dangerous these opponents are and play accordingly.

"When I ran into them in the Challenge Cup during my Newcastle days, I was struck by the scale of their aspiration: they were obviously incredibly ambitious. Now they've developed a style they're comfortable with, they are well equipped to threaten anyone and everyone. We'll have to perform to turn things around."

Things were turning rather neatly in Flood's direction when calamity struck at the Millennium Stadium during the spring. "We had what seemed like a match-winning lead over the Blues, things had gone well from a personal point of view and then... bang! I felt as if someone had kicked me, but when I looked around to see who had done it, there was no one near me. Even though the adrenaline rush stopped it hurting too much, it quickly dawned on me that my Achilles had gone and that it was serious. This was confirmed as soon as I reached the dressing room."

If there was a faint silver lining attached to the great bank of cumulonimbus hovering over Flood's head that afternoon, it was that the injury gave him a "get out of jail" card in respect of the penalty shoot-out that decided the match in Leicester's favour – acknowledged by everyone involved, winners and losers, to have been a sporting travesty.

"Maybe it was one of the reasons I was seen smiling, even as I was hobbling around on my crutches," Flood says. "We'd found our way through to the final and the blokes were celebrating, so I couldn't in all conscience stand there looking grumpy. But it's also true that I'd have been as nervous as hell taking one of those crucial shots, even though kicking is a big part of my regular job. I don't mind lining up a penalty or a conversion to win a game at the death, even though the tension inevitably gets to you. This was different. It was a good one to miss."

He is currently in his second season at Leicester, having left Newcastle last year. The Tynesiders and the Midlanders may account for 50 per cent of the teams to have won the Guinness Premiership title but in truth, the two have little in common. Newcastle's was a one-off raid on the glittering prize, staged when many of the traditional powerhouses of English rugby were still fathoming the implications of the new professional era. Leicester win the thing as a pastime. When they fail, there is an inquest.

"Perhaps the major difference between this club and my old one is the expectation of success," Flood acknowledges. "Everyone wants to win: I don't suppose there's a player in the Sunday League or the local pub competition who considers defeat to be acceptable and when you get to the professional ranks, we're all pretty ruthless in our own way. But here, the level of desire really is out of the ordinary, partly as a result of the long history of achievement. It's why each individual, irrespective of who he might be, starts from scratch on arrival. We have one of the best of the modern All Blacks in Aaron Mauger, but even he had to go through the same process as everyone else. You don't demand respect at Leicester. You earn it."

Not being a presumptuous sort, Flood does not suggest this is a done deal in his case. He does, however, feel "fully engaged" with the club and is quickly learning to do things the Leicester way. "The training is as fierce as everyone warned me it would be," he says, "and it's been particularly ferocious this week as a result of Sunday's defeat. Believe me, there is no suggestion of us putting it behind us and moving on. It still hurts too much for that."

So Leicester will be in one of their mean and miserable moods when the Frenchmen arrive for round two. "It's certainly our intention to get hold of them," he agrees. "But that doesn't necessarily entail kicking for position all night long and putting the squeeze on them in their own 22. Yes, it's important to be pragmatic, but ultimately, I'll always want to give the running game a crack." Amen to that.