No trophies or finals last season – what’s your assessment of the campaign?
I think we did some pretty good things, to be fair. Saints are champions and they played well, but the reality is we drew a game against them, beat them by six at their place and then lost a semi-final to them by one point, so the margins were very fine. There are things we can do better and there were issues about the injuries we had, but as Saints showed in the grand final, the margin between winning and losing can literally come down to millimetres.
How hard do you take defeat personally?
It’s always difficult but sometimes you get beaten. We put our best foot forward and did as best as we could, but there are some good sides in the Premiership, with Saints being one of them. I dislike losing but you have to dust yourself down, show a bit of character, regroup and carry on.
What must Tigers do better next season?
In big games, at the pressure points, we have to be a little more accurate. Getting your best players on the field is always key to that and last season also showed the importance of getting a home semi-final. The Premiership is getting better and better and all the recruitment is good so it’s going to be another tough season. The top five from last year will clearly press forward again, Gloucester have recruited strongly and changed a lot of people, Wasps have recruited well, as have Sale, and even London Welsh have recruited very well. London Irish, with a new training ground, players and belief in what they’re doing, will improve and Newcastle the same. Across the board it’s going to be harder than ever and that’s the challenge we face.
Do you feel additional pressure to succeed as boss of Leicester?
No. The key for any team is that you’re evolving and you know where you need to get better. There’s always an objective at the end of it. We’ve got a very good, young squad and I believe we’ve recruited well from outside to give us more depth. There’s no exact science to winning so you have to work hard. In the end it’s a game and as much as the scientists like to say if you do this, do that, this is the result, the bounce of the ball, referee, weather conditions, pitch, injuries and international call-ups all come into it and you have to take a measured view. Of course we want to win the Premiership, we make no bones about that, but how realistic that is we’ll see next May.
Neil Back recently criticised Leicester’ attacking game, describing it as ‘woeful…. readable, restrained and lacking in intensity and speed of thought.’ How do you answer that?
The reality is we scored the third most tries in the competition with the majority of our backline injured for huge parts of the season. If anything we need to improve our defensive effort because we conceded too many tries. In the last five or six seasons we’ve either been first, second or third in the most tries scored so whatever Neil or anyone else says, those are the facts. He’s not the only one who’s questioned our attacking threat but the reality is we scored more tries last season than nine other sides. Saracens and Saints scored more and conceded less so they finished above us, but try-scoring is not an issue for us and our attack will continue to be good. Manu Tuilagi played six games for us last year, Anthony Allen missed large chunks, Toby Flood, Ben Youngs – we had huge problems and had 13 or 14 different combinations in midfield. That’s fact, not an excuse. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, I’m cool with that, but I think it’s our defence that has to be better rather than our attack. We want to score more tries, everyone does, but we scored as many bonus point tries as anybody else last season so I’m not sure where Neil is coming from. The perception and reality are two different things.
Another former Tiger, Lewis Moody, believes Geordan Murphy should take more of a decision-making role. Any mileage in that?
Paul Burke stepped up last season as well and he and Geordan have worked very well together. They’ve both done a very good job and Geordy is still learning. He’s still getting his head around not being a player but his relationship with the players and his level of knowledge of the positional stuff is second to none. The slot he’s in at the moment, where he can just go out and coach and work with the guys, he’s been very, very good at and I’m very happy with him there.
Did you or your coaches undertake any fact-finding missions over the summer?
Members of our coaching staff went around the world doing professional development and seeing what other environments do. I went to look at American Football and baseball, more from a management and analytical point of view than performance related. I attended a couple of conferences and met guys from basketball, baseball and American Football and it just gives you a different take on things and reaffirms some of the stuff you’re already doing. But the most important thing is a good squad, well-drilled in whatever your systems are – good people, good players who all work hard. You can come up with all the gimmicks you like but the reality is with good, well coached players fit and on the field, you’ll probably be okay.
Which of your new signings excite you the most?
Across the board I’m excited. Michele Rizzo and Leonardo Ghiraldini will add massive strength to our front row, along with Youngs, Cole and Mulipola, and Robert Barbieri in our back row, whether at No.7 or No.8, is a big, strong ball-carrier who will be very good for us. Freddie Burns had a pretty good summer with England and Seremaia Bai, at 35, is the ultimate pro and has been at every session doing everything, so at No.10 or No.12 he’s a really good option for us. Christian Loamanu is big and powerful so all our signings complement our squad really well and have added depth, both starting or off the bench. I’m pretty content with what we’ve got.
Freddie Burns will obviously be under scrutiny – how’s he settling in?
He started with us a fortnight ago and he gets it. He understands where we’re at and what he needs to be. He’s knuckled down and just cracking on. The important thing here is everyone’s equal. Some players are better than others, some have more profile than others, but in the changing room and on the training field they’re all equal and held to account the same as everyone else. Whether you’re a nobody or a somebody is irrelevant.
Has Freddie learnt from his poor experiences last season, particularly with the way he handled his media profile?
Like all young players, they don’t know what they don’t know. For me, it’s important that you manage that part of it and some players need looking after more than others or protecting, whether it’s playing, training or media, reminding them of their responsibilities to the team and the club. If that’s managed how your club wants it to be managed, most of the time it solves itself. Here we manage it pretty well and the players know where they are in the system and what’s acceptable to me or the club. It’s not too hard to work out!
How do you see the fly-half battle between Freddie and Owen Williams developing?
Owen played well last year and overtook Toby Flood in the end, while Freddie obviously had a disappointing season but was good on tour with England. Owen can’t play until the opening league game because of his suspension so that gives Fred a chance to get a march on him a little bit in pre-season. They’re both very good players who’ll work hard and they’re guys who came here knowing they had competition, which says a lot about them. It would have been very easy for Freddie to stay at Gloucester and be first choice but he’s come to a tough environment that’s traditionally been successful and he’s going to have to be good. He made that choice and I’m delighted he has, and he’ll battle it out with Owen and Seremaia Bai and he’ll be better for it.
You’ve drawn another tough European group with Toulon, Ulster and Scarlets in your ERCC Pool – how much harder is it getting to end your 12-year drought?
By definition it’s going to be harder than ever because four less teams have qualified as of right. Only Treviso have qualified from outside the top group in the Pro 12 because of them being Italian. Going home and away with Toulon will be very hard; Ulster – who knows with the changes they’re having; and you’d expect Scarlets to be difficult to beat. A lot depends what happens after the autumn Tests. England have four tough games and then we go straight into Europe, so if we end up going to Toulon the week after four or five of our best players have been playing for England, it will make it difficult for us.
Can you seriously compete with the cash-rich French now?
We beat Montpellier home and away last season and they were pretty good in the Top 14. French clubs have the depth because they have additional money to spend, but as Saracens showed and we showed at times as well, if you have your best blokes fit, you can compete. If you get multiple injuries, though, we just don’t have that depth of squad.
Think the salary cap’s a good idea then?
It makes things work okay domestically. You have to keep a competitive competition in the Premiership – there’s no point having a Man City/Chelsea scenario where you’ve got sides spending huge amounts more. You always want to be better but in the Premiership the cap works and it keeps things pretty even. In Europe it’s slightly different but the domestic fan-base is growing and profile, sponsorship and TV revenues are growing, so it’s a pretty good product and we should keep the salary cap going.
What did you make of England in NZ?
Even though the Test results went against us, it showed England have a lot of depth in certain positions. Clearly midfield is still an issue to be sorted but in the long run that tour will be good for England. It hurts to lose a series but all the disruption gave people experience who otherwise would not have got it.
Which Leicester players do expect to press cases for England this season?
Ed Slater’s got to be in pole position. He’s a very good player and although at the highest level we’ll have to see how he competes athletically, in every other regard he’s exceptional – good leader, good bloke and exactly the sort of work ethic you need. Graham Kitchener could have another big season and push through, Tom Croft’s fit and will be important for us and England. If Anthony Allen has a big season there’s no reason why he can’t get in the mix.
Are you concerned about the possibility of guys like Blaine Scully, Niki Goneva and Bai being called up for Olympics Sevens qualifying duty?
It’s a concern but it’s a balance between those guys getting developed in Europe and being world-class off the back of what we’re giving them and how much they’re going to be away. There comes a tipping point but it’s not happened yet and I’m sure there’ll be some commonsense.
How much of a driver is it for you personally that you lost your title to Saints?
There’s always a healthy rivalry between us. They won the championship, they had their share of luck along the way, but they played very well. Always the challenge when you win it is to retain it – do you have the same hunger to retain it? It’s hard to win, even harder to retain when your hunger’s a little bit up and down and everyone’s chasing you. We’ve had it over a number of years and it’ll be interesting to see how they cope.
Gut wrenching to miss out on that tenth successive Twickenham final?
It happens. We’ve got guys in our squad who’ve never known what it is not to go to a final, but it’s not a rite of passage, you have
to earn it and last year we didn’t. Hopefully, that will remind a few people they need to be spot on with their preparation, training and attitude all the time.
Finally, do you have any ambitions beyond Leicester?
Not really. My job is Leicester, simple as that. If something comes along it comes along, but my interest is purely Leicester and if I’m here for the next 20 years, whether as head coach or kit man, I’ll be happy because my emotional attachment to this club is huge. I’ve got four years on my contract, let’s try to get to the end of those and see where we get to.
No trophies or finals last season – what’s your assessment of the campaign?