Ruthless approach that fires the Tigers

Leicester's title triumph was based on hard work, meticulous planning and flexibility
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The Independent Online

For two very good reasons, the oval-ball aristocrats of Bath did not give themselves the proverbial snowball's chance in Hades of travelling to Welford Road this coming weekend with the outcome of the Allied Dunbar Premiership still at issue.

To begin with, they would not have trusted their nearest and dearest from Bristol to post a letter last Sunday, let alone post a victory over a side as capable as Leicester. Secondly, and more importantly, they knew deep down that the Tigers' mastery of the three Ps - pragmatism, professionalism and pride - would guarantee them the title seven days early, whoever the opposition.

How did they know this? Because the West Countrymen once possessed precisely the same virtues. For Martin Johnson's millennial vintage, read Bath circa 1990. Back in the days when all roads led to the banks of the River Avon, the inner sanctum at the Recreation Ground - Jack Rowell, Stuart Barnes, Richard Hill, Gareth Chilcott, John Hall - would base their weekend campaigns around the practical, as opposed to the desirable. Bath often played free-flowing, cork-popping champagne rugby, but only when the other lot had been comprehensively beaten up and were out on their feet.

A decade on, Leicester have nothing on their ancient rivals in terms of two of the aforementioned qualities, professionalism and pride. Those essential attributes are non-negotiable parts of the mindset at both clubs. But the Midlanders have proved themselves infinitely more pragmatic, partly because they are incapable of scaling the Olympian heights reached by Bath over the last two months of hard-surface rugby and therefore tend to settle for the art of the possible, but more obviously because they are stronger in the area that really counts: the "top four inches", as the All Blacks say when discussing the psychology of the game.

The current Leicester hierarchy are as tough as old boots, and all of them go about their business with a ruthlessness that borders on the cruel. They are an insular crowd, too, as suspicious of outsiders as they are protective of their own. If Dean Richards, that lumbering great bear of a Lions No 8 who now manages the team, is the public face of Leicester, heaven help the public. Given the choice between an interview session and a training run, Deano would unhesitatingly opt for the latter - an illuminating little factoid, given the man's intense dislike of unnecessary physical exercise.

John Wells, the forwards coach and tactician in chief, is Richards incarnate, only quieter. Captain Johnson? Ditto. There is precious little of the Peter Ustinov about Johnno, and even less of the Austin Healey. Behind closed doors, though, these strong, silent types talk turkey with the best of them. They spend untold hours at Oval Park, their training base on the outskirts of the city, plotting and planning, conspiring and concocting.

On match days, the Leicester pragmatism is in evidence from minute one to minute 80. Tim Stimpson, for instance, has scored 303 points in the 21 Premiership games to date, only 20 of them as a result of his crossing the line with the ball tucked under his arm. The big full-back kicked six penalties to win a tryless early-season encounter with Sale, slotted another four to salvage a draw at Newcastle, hoovered up 23 points to see off Wasps before Christmas, put 21 points past Gloucester in a crucial set-to under lights last month and has passed the 15-point mark on no fewer than 12 occasions. Add to that the almost obsessive parsimony of the champions' defence and it is clear that, in tight games, Leicester are tighter than the rest put together.

They also react to circumstances as they are, rather than as they would like them to be, when it comes to selection. Having lost 11 players to World Cup duty - from the forthright Canadian Dave Lougheed on the wing to the bruising Brummie Martin Corry at No 8 - and then suffered prolonged injuries to the likes of Johnson, Fritz van Heerden and Darren Garforth, the management's skill in mixing and matching the available personnel has been quite outstanding. Leicester retained their title with a full-back, Geordan Murphy, on the right wing; a left wing, Leon Lloyd, at outside centre; a scrum-half, Healey, at stand-off; and an open-side flanker, Lewis Moody, on the short side. Some flexibility, some imagination.

Renowned as a close-knit, home-grown outfit, they have nevertheless coaxed a maximum degree of commitment from their overseas contingent. Van Heerden, the Springbok lock who ends his Tiger-striped career this weekend, describes the Midlanders' work ethic as the most formidable he has encountered at any level of rugby, anywhere in the world. Pat Howard, the Australian centre from Brisbane, loves the place so much that he has turned out in every game this season and intends to stay on in a player-coach's capacity. Only Will Greenwood, once the great white hope of English rugby but now a half-forgotten bit-parter, appears less than committed to the cause.

That single blemish will not deprive Richards of a moment's sleep. The manager has more young talent at his disposal than he knows what to do with - the Under-21s pressed Bristol hard for the national league title, while the Youth XV lost only two games all season - and can afford to minimise his visits to the transfer market. He shed no tears over the collapse of negotiations with Rob Howley, the Cardiff and Wales scrum-half, and is not exactly busting a gut in pursuit of Carlos Spencer, the former All Black outside-half. "I'm not particularly disappointed about Rob," he said after Sunday's wrap-up win at Bristol, "and nothing is happening on the Spencer front whatsoever. I don't think we'll be making too many signings. I'm more interested in keeping the players we've got."

It was Richards, and Leicester, all over: simple, straightforward and honest as the day is long. The evidence of that honesty is there on paper, in plain black and white; unlike some of their starry-eyed competitors, the Tigers operate within the constraints of the salary cap. It is also there for all to see on the billiard-table surface of Welford Road, resplendent in hoops of red, green and white. Long may the Tigers roar.