Why Tigers accentuate the physical

Aggression still key, despite two bans for punching
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The Independent Online

Leicester began their Heineken Cup campaign with one England forward unavailable due to a ban for punching, and for today's resumption against the Ospreys it is two, with Julian White having been joined in the disciplinary cooler by Lewis Moody for his set-to against Samoa while with England.

Still, the fighting Tigers insist they will not change their ultra-confrontational style even if it continues to clock up the suspensions. "The mentality of being a winner is the important thing," says Richard Cockerill, Leicester's forwards coach. "Crikey, we're all disappointed with what happened with Lewis, but I'd rather have a player you have to pull back from it than push towards it."

All pushing and pulling in the same direction has been Leicester's strength in their unique success in the open era, including European titles in 2001 and 2002. Cockerill was a hooker nurtured the Tigers way - if Brian Moore cornered the nickname Pitbull, "Cockers" was an East Midlands terrier - and returned last year from finishing his playing career in France to find nothing had changed. "You get the ethos of the training stamped into you, and either you become part of it or you don't last too long."

Moody was sent off at Twickenham and subsequently suspended for nine weeks when his attempt to part Mark Cueto from another Leicester man, Samoa's Alex Tuilagi, went spectacularly awry in a battery of punches. "What went on was probably like a training day at Leicester," commented Josh Lewsey, the England full-back, and indeed the tales of the club's base at Oval Park are legendary.

Most of them prompt the thought that the field should be ringed with rope and sprinkled with sawdust. Moody related with relish in his recently published book how he took a tackle-bag session too far and was put in his place by a right-hander from Martin Johnson. Unfortunately for Moody, the book appeared while he was serving a six-week stand-down for punching in an A-league match. Bad timing, in every sense.

Clearly it is nobody's business other than Leicester's if they want to knock seven bells out of each other in training. But there must be a concern for both club and country when the attitude draws comments such as Lewsey's, and with consequences such as those suffered by Moody, White and, earlier this year, Neil Back. Is it an edge Leicester could do with losing?

"Rugby's a physical game and you have to practise in a physical way," says Cockerill. "Leic-ester over the last 15 years have been pretty confrontational and quite difficult to play against, and that's the way we like to do it. When the guys come back from England they say none of the other clubs do half as much contact work as we do. We feel it works for us, so that come match day nothing's a surprise. Mentally and physically we feel it hardens our boys up to the level that we need them."

As a player, Cockerill was a fellow resident with Johnson on the back seat of the team bus, a place in the Leicester hierarchy over which - according to Back's autobiography - blood would be spilled. When Back was blocked off by Wasps' Joe Worsley chasing a ball last season he reacted with a punch which landed Worsley on the floor and Back with a ban. "I don't think we've had any more disciplinary problems than any other club," says Cockerill, who chuckles when he is reminded that Barry Williams, the Ospreys' former Wales hooker, once branded him the "gob of England".

That was harmless banter, but the blood is bound to be up with the Welsh in town. "The boys played at Newport on a wet Friday night and met the supporters who were one-eyed, and it's all part of their development," says Cockerill, whose "chalk and cheese" coaching partnership with Pat Howard is helping keep Leicester in the top three of the Premiership. And what of Johnson who, though not officially attached to the club, pays occasional visits to training? "He observes from afar and keeps a low profile," says Cockerill.