31 December 2004
With the Zurich Premiership season just past the halfway mark, Leicester Tigers have grabbed all the headlines because of their try-scoring exploits under the guidance of backline coach Pat Howard. In all, Tigers have rattled up 56 five-pointers in just 16 matches, with 43 of those coming in 12 ZP games, but Howard prefers to dodge the praise, insisting that the players are the ones making it happen out there.
And the players certainly made things happen against Worcester Warriors on Monday, as they added another seven tries to their tally in a breathtaking display of attacking rugby.
"I thought there was a really good mix out there against Worcester - take the first two tries, they were forward-dominated," says Pat. "That's what we want, we want the opposition to have to watch us in every aspect of play. At times during this season we've been poor overall, but yet at times we've had some beautiful handling and scored some real structured tries, but yet we've also scored some opportunistic tries. I think 95 per cent comes from the players and their enthusiasm and how they come out of the next month could dictate how the season turns out."
But back to those statistics from above - Tigers are the top try-scorers in the Zurich Premiership, whilst they have also conceded the fewest tries in the competition. Does that make Pat Howard, the backline coach at Leicester Tigers, a happy man?
Pat laughs, and then replies: "In all fairness, I'm always happy! But seriously, I think there are some real positives to take out of the season so far. Win or lose, you look at a game as analytical as possible and you sort of say, 'Look, there were real positives'. You must take those positives, but at the same time you mustn't ignore the cracks, you must make sure you deal with them.
"The reason Julian White got the Man of the Match Award against Worcester was because of the fatigue he created during that 20-minute spell in the first half. That opened up the opportunities for us and when you open teams up you tend to relax more and you make more chances and score your tries. I thought the side as a whole, and I mean the entire 22, created fatigue and took their chances."
A pleasing aspect for Tigers' coaching staff, and Pat in particular, is the pride the players take in their own play. Whilst many rated Leicester's Heineken Cup double-header against defending champions London Wasps as two of the best club matches in recent times, the players, themselves, were not entirely happy.
"The guys came into the changing-room against Worcester and compared themselves to the two Wasps games and the Saracens match when they didn't get the four-try bonus point after making good starts," explains Pat. "They actually raised their own standards and levels; they were talking about bonus points and they were certainly quite happy with how it went against Worcester. We've all taken positives from the game and we'll deal with the negatives later."
Negatives aside - not that there are many, however - how does one rate the perfect 80 minutes? Or more importantly, perhaps, have we seen it from Tigers this season?
"If you get four tries and score four tries, then your finishing is excellent, but then there'll be question marks over the lack of opportunities created," Pat points out. "I guess if you get 16 opportunities and you score 16 ... then it's probably the perfect game. And the day we achieve that, we'll all go home!"
On the topic of achievements, Tigers remain coy when talk of trophies rears its head. And you cannot blame them. We are just past the halfway mark in the Zurich Premiership, and the Heineken Cup is certainly far from over, with two crucial Pool 1 games remaining in January.
"I think we all know the competitions are all very different and that we face a challenging time during the Six Nations," says Pat. "That's something we can't get around and it'll be tough, but the players have to step up and that's why we played those guys against Gloucester in the Powergen Cup - those are the players that are going to have to stand up and play significantly well when called upon during that period.
"Obviously we'd love to win every trophy we can. At the moment we're two from three; we know that we're out of the Powergen Cup and we're disappointed with that. Can we win the next two trophies? Yes, if we play well, we can win them. I know Wasps are quite happy being second, they've won competitions from there in the past and there's still a long way to go. We've put ourselves in a position to be in the top three in the Zurich Premiership and we also know that if we can come away from the Biarritz and Calvisano games with enough points then we can at least get through to the next level of the Heineken Cup."
Tigers could be without as many as 14 first-choice players during the Six Nations next year, but Pat, for one, is welcoming the challenge, saying: "I don't think our second tier is weak and that's why I think that Gloucester game in the Powergen Cup was so important for us and crucial to what we're doing. Those guys we played are all good players and I respect them; someone like Sam Vesty is now an established first-grade player and he could play against anybody in Europe and play well and make breaks and be dangerous. I thought Danny Hipkiss was unbelievable against Worcester. He played nearly 70 minutes after coming in at the 11th hour, and that after a monstrous fitness session just two days before, and I was very, very happy to see him score a try late in the game.
"I was a little bit offended when people referred to our side against Gloucester as a second-string side. We played two internationals centres, we had Alex (Alesana) Tuilagi out there, who had scored two tries against them the last time out, so I was a bit offended by those comments in the papers and the press. It wasn't a weak side and we're going to have to utilise those players again."
The Six Nations aside, squad management is going to be very important over the next few weeks, especially in the Heineken Cup. Tigers have two crucial Heineken Cup fixtures ahead of them in January, but winger Tom Varndell is not registered for Europe, whilst registered players like Seru Rabeni and Alesana Tuilagi are currently injured.
Pat continues: "We've got four wingers registered for Europe and there are some of them that aren't fit to play now, which is why the squad needs to be managed properly. You don't sign 17 or 18 backs just to have seven play all year long. I want all the backs to get a run this season and earn their respect."
This is where Pat Howard's much-talked about confidence comes into play. The man himself, however, will have none of it, saying: "I think it's where Wellsy gets a bad rep - it's a case of good cop and bad cop and Wellsy has to play both of them, whilst I get the accolades, which is fairly unfair to be honest.
"I believe in these guys; to me the difference between an outstanding player and just a very good player is very minimal. You get to see during training what all these guys are capable of and as a consequence you get filled with confidence; I look for good things to pick a player, rather than look for their faults to say they're not up to it. I don't try to make them a complete player, I just try to utilise the talents that they have and every one of these guys have something that make them the best in the team."
Coming from a rugby-playing nation like Australia, Pat knows all about appreciating players. Australia does not have the biggest rugby-playing population, especially when compared to the likes of England, South Africa or New Zealand, but yet the Wallabies have won the World Cup twice (in 1991 and 1999) and they contested the 2003 final against England.
"I think Australia sometimes had limited selection options simply because of a lack of numbers. But I think I've been to a lot of places now and played at a lot of clubs and I've seen talent utilised ... and talent not utilised," says Pat.
"The amount of times I've seen a guy given an opportunity and picked because he's good enough, has helped me appreciate that when you're not getting picked that's really hard. There are seven starting backs in a team, but you don't have to do anything for them - they're fine. It's the guys that are on the fringes that I always feel for."