Powell back in the hot seat after big freeze

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The Independent Online

When Daryl Powell broke new ground with Leeds Tykes 10 days ago, as a first-team coach in a second rugby code, he pledged to encourage his players "to try something if they feel it is on". Little did he know that within 72 hours he would be unable to drive a stake into the ground in the small Italian town of Calvisano, and thathe would make a militant debut as a leader in union by calling a match off.

"To get five points for not playing in my first match is a bit strange," admitted Powell. "I'm hoping today we'll get five points by more usual means."

To do so Powell's team will not only have to play but beat Cardiff Blues with at least four tries at Headingley Carnegie stadium. The sides share a similar outside-chance of reaching the quarter-finals, as one of the two best runners-up.

What they do not share is a satisfaction with the tournament organisers' decision on Thursday to award Leeds five points from last weekend's twice-postponed Pool Two fixture in the shadow of the Alps.

The Blues were unhappy and others simply bemused that although the referee, George Clancy of Ireland, deemed Calvisano's frozen pitch to have thawed sufficiently to play 24 hours after calling off the original fixture, Powell refused to play ball. European Rugby Cup Ltd ruled in Leeds's favour, and charged Calvisano with failing to prepare an adequate pitch and with refusing to try again in midweek.

"We were obviously going to be at risk of conceding the game but you have to make a stand," said Powell, 40 years old and Yorkshire born and bred. "We were out half an hour before kick-off and the pitch was undulating in some parts and rock-hard in others. We tried to push some stakes into it but we couldn't. Players have a short enough career as it is without risking ligament injuries, particularly ankle ligaments, on a really dangerous pitch like that."

The ERC board are believed to have cited precedents when teams objected to playing for reasons of health and safety (including a Newcastle v Leinster tie) with recourse to Law 1.6 (b): "The referee ... must not start a match if any part of the ground is considered to be dangerous."

It was a first for Powell - who might have thought his coaching double unique to Super League and the Guinness Premiership was novel enough - but after talks with Phil Davies, the Tykes' director of rugby who was busy scouting in Cardiff, he stood firm.

"Anyone who saw me play knows I'm used to scrapping and being in a dogfight," Powell said. "My forte was defence. I always liked belting people."

Powell's defence during a 450-match career helped earn him 33 Great Britain caps from the unfashionable clubs of Sheffield and Keighley. On joining the Rhinos as a player, he won the last Challenge Cup final at Wembley in 1999 and lost the first at Murrayfield in 2000, then as head coach he oversaw the defeat by Bradford at the Millennium Stadium in 2003.

The same year was troubled off the field when players Chev Walker and Ryan Bailey were jailed for their part in a street brawl. Powell stepped down, temporarily it was said, to be replaced by Huddersfield's Tony Smith, but he switched to the Tykes eventually last July, initially as the attacking co-ordinator.

"I watch all our games three times through on video," said Powell of his adjustment to union. "I played a bit of union at school [Carlton High in Pontefract] but didn't quite have the skill set if I'd ever fancied myself as a fly-half. There are days when I'm looking at things I'm not overly clear of, but the players have been great with me.

"I don't know why rugby league coaches in union have been associated for so long with defence, you'd have to ask the guys who employed them. Denis Betts has got attacking parts of his new job assisting Gloucester, and Joe Lydon is working with the England backs. Our back line has been improving, and the mix between breaking the opposition down on first phase or applying pressure through longer movements is fascinating to me."

Domestically, Leeds' predicament at the foot of the Premiership is more alarming than fascinating, and it led to Davies stepping down as first-team coach in the autumn. Powell was not among the interviewees for a successor but he was announced in the job on 12 January. Davies, a former Wales second row, was asked to concentrate on the forwards after 10 years as top man.

Leeds have 10 matches in which to repeat last season's late escape from relegation, including trips to the top three, Sale, Leicester and Wasps. "You need to believe you can win every game," said Powell, who selects the team jointly with Davies. "We changed the squad in the off-season and it can take a while to understand each other."