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Friday, December 30, 2005

 

Other Unions/ Teams: Leicester's search for a successor to Howard drags on


By Mark Souster
www.timesonline.co.uk


LEICESTER have put back a decision on finding a successor to Pat Howard as head coach until after the new year. The news is an indication of the club’s determination not only to ensure that they get the right man for probably the biggest and most demanding job in English rugby, but also a tacit admission that they may not be entirely convinced of the merits of the three candidates in the frame.

Scott Johnson, the Wales assistant coach, John Kirwan, the former New Zealand wing and Italy coach, and Jim Mallinder, now with the England Academy, have been interviewed, with Johnson seen as the favourite. Kirwan, though, would seem to have the best credentials and pedigree.

The club had expected to make an announcement before Christmas, but that an appointment has not been made a month after the shortlist was drawn up suggests that Leicester could be ready to expand their search.

“That is a possibility, but I am not suggesting that at this stage,” Simon Cohen, the club’s operations manager, said yesterday. “But we have to make sure we have everybody in the net. It is such an important appointment for the club. We are not going to rush this. The whole process takes time.”

With Howard returning to Australia at the end of the season, the club need a period of stability. Whoever takes over will become the fourth coach in three years, a period of upheaval reflected in their comparative lack of success.

Since winning four successive titles between 1998-99 and 2001-02 and two Heineken Cups, Leicester have finished sixth, seventh and first in the Premiership but were beaten in the Grand Final by London Wasps last season. There have also been reports of political factions vying for supremacy at Welford Road, which is understood to have had a bearing on the decision by John Wells, Howard’s predecessor, to leave. He was a huge loss.

While it would be wrong to suggest that Leicester have fundamental problems, by their own high standards cracks are showing. At the top, not everyone would appear to be pulling in the same direction. Certainly they do not have the cloak of invincibility they once did. Like Manchester United they are no longer feared by opponents.

Howard was scathing about the performance of some players in the 15-3 defeat away to Bristol on Tuesday, saying that there were individuals not worthy of the Leicester shirt. While also accepting that he had to take the blame, having picked the team, he intimated that there would be casualties, with some players departing. “I want to leave this club in better shape than when I arrived,” he said.

The away form is poor; the defeat by Bristol was the tenth in their past 13 outings in all competitions. Off the field, the proposal to move to the Walkers Stadium in a joint venture with Leicester City last season never got off the ground. But everything is relative. With their phenomenal support and sound finances, Leicester remain one of the big beasts, if not the biggest, in the Guinness Premiership jungle. They just need a sure hand on the tiller.

Philippe Saint-Andre is certainly providing that at Sale Sharks. They go into 2006 top of the Premiership, on the verge of the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup for the first time and with a squad that is the envy of most clubs. Credit goes to Saint-Andre, who took over as head coach at the start of the 2004-05 season, and Brian Kennedy, the owner, for backing him.

Saint-Andre’s first game was the defeat of Leicester at Edgeley Park, when Sébastien Chabal announced his arrival, one of a clutch of astute signings by the Frenchman, who has proved his coaching credentials time and again with Gloucester, Bourgoin and now Sale. No doubt Leicester would love someone of his calibre at the helm. Maybe even England, too, should consider him as and when Andy Robinson moves on. Pourquoi pas?

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