The wallaby who became pure tiger

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The Independent Online

Dean Richards is asked about the importance to Leicester of retaining the Premiership title and he laughs a loud, exaggerated laugh. "What sort of question is that?" he says. "If you asked the same thing to Manchester United, they'd tell you to f... off."

It would be stretching the imagination to compare Richards' Tigers with Sir Alex Ferguson's Devils, but Deano has no problem. The only difference, perhaps, aside from the fact that some players get paid more in a week than others get in a season, is that the football team clinched their Premiership long before the final whistle, while Leicester still have a bit to do.

"I'd love to have won it two or three weeks ago," Richards said. Victory at Bristol today will confirm Leicester as champions again. The whole of the West Country will be in the eye of the tiger. If Bristol win, the outcome of the Premiership would go down to the wire - Leicester's last hurrah against Bath next weekend.

Leicester, two points clear with today's game in hand, have won 11 on the trot, Bath 10. The former like nothing better than suffocating the opposition, preferably in a mud bath; the latter, full of runners, like to strut their stuff with the sun on their backs.

Richards, the one-time archetypal Leicester forward, took over as coach a couple of years ago when Bob Dwyer was sacked. Dwyer, of course, moved to Bristol; cue mayhem at the Memorial Ground today, despite Richards' claims that "personal issues don't come into it".

Joel Stransky, who has been in charge of the Leicester backs, is leaving Welford Road at the end of the season to team up with Dwyer, and his role will be filled by Pat Howard. Howard, too, has a soft spot for Dwyer, who gave the centre-cum-stand-off the first of his 20 Australian caps in 1993. "Whatever happens against Bristol, I'll have a few beers with Bob," Howard said.

Howard, who is 26, moved to Leicester from the Super 12 team ACT Brumbies shortly after Dwyer's dismissal. Short, chunky and powerful, he is in the Tim Horan mould and, with no place in the Wallabies squad, he gave the Midlands a try.

"I didn't come over here for a pension plan," Howard, a qualified pharmacist who is taking a degree in securities, said. "I made a promise to the Brumbies that I would return, but they're doing so well they probably don't need me. The Super 12 season is much shorter, and with bonus points on offer there is far more attacking play. Here the onus is on not making mistakes, and there is almost the grittiness of Test rugby. Both have their place."

Grittiness sounds like a Leicester byword. The perception of the Tigers is that they didn't get where they are today by being aesthetically pleasing or indeed playing like the Brumbies, and if there was no place for Dwyer or Stransky, how will Howard get his way?

"My role is player-coach but I see myself primarily as a player. No matter who the coach is, if he's not on the field, all he can do once the action starts is throw his hands in the air. It won't be a huge change. I already have an input on ideas and tactics. I'm quite vocal."

Howard's contract, which expires at the end of the month, will be renewed for another year. It was a tough call. He watched Australia win the World Cup from a seat in the stand at the Millennium Stadium. "I don't see my Test career as being finished. I like to think that I could still do it. I loved playing in the Super 12 and I was brought up with the Brumbies style. It's good to watch and it wins games. They have a very small, tight-knit squad with no disgruntled people. I can make more of a difference here than there.

"Leicester may have a reputation for being forward-oriented but in fact we're flex- ible. I enjoyed our spell during the World Cup more than any time since I've been here. We introduced young players who had no preconceptions and they did very, very well. It was great rugby and great fun. We didn't have a big, dominant pack or the big names, but we won by changing style.

"Deano and the boys did a good job as coaches and leaders. You have to adapt to the people you have. Last season Neil Back was the top try-scorer. This season the backs have been scoring the points. We haven't been as dominant in defence, while other defences have improved. Retaining the title is more difficult. That's why Manchester United's achievement is impressive."

There is the prospect of Austin Healey partnering Robert Howley next season, although Howard says: "If it doesn't happen, it's by no means a tragedy. We have a very underrated scrum-half in Jamie Hamilton. As for Austin, I'll sit down and discuss what suits him and the side. He and the club have options. His counter-attacking ability is exceptional and that might not be best suited to stand-off. He is so versatile he could play in different positions in different weeks. In an ideal world he could even play in different positions in the same game."

It is no coincidence that Leicester and Bath's advances in the Premiership have been driven, in part, by their early exits from both the Tetley's Bitter and Heineken Cups. It did not stop Richards from complaining about "far too much rugby". He added: "The players need four months off each season. Their lifespan is getting shorter." In addition to losing Stransky, Leicester are also having farewell parties for Fritz van Heerden and Dave Lough-eed. Today they will be without Dorian West, Darren Garforth and Will Johnson, who broke an ankle in training.

Nevertheless, should the Tigers, fortified by the biggest support in England, which makes their away matches a lot less hostile, secure the title today, Deano and the boys could claim they are in a league of their own. They are still at the top despite losing their international players during the World Cup and despite being without their captain, Martin Johnson - who is likely to lead them again next season - for most of the campaign.

After he had finished his long, sardonic laugh, Richards admitted that if Leicester, who took it last year in the penultimate game, don't win the Premiership: "It would be a failure." It would be a great deal more than that.