‘Rugby moves in trends. Right now, England are behind the times’

first_imgAs rugby players go, they don’t come more controversial than Austin Healey. Despite 51 caps for England and two for the British and Irish Lions, opinion both on the player and the man remains firmly split. Many fans of his club, Leicester Tigers, revere Healey and would have him back in the England squad tomorrow; others have labelled him childish and unprofessional, a loud mouth, a show pony and even a selfish player who puts himself before the team. Yet Healey’s genius for rugby is undoubted, and with English rugby in deep gloom, I rung him to find out how its most unshakably cheery player thinks it will get out of the rut. Before getting stuck in, I wanted to get a sense of Healey’s style. With a man known in some quarters as Oz ‘the mouth’ Healey, I wanted to make sure that when was saying something for a reaction, or just pulling my leg, I’d know. We started off on Healey’s approach off the pitch. At the forefront of my mind was an incident from the 2001 Lions tour: with Richard Hill swimming in a shark tank beside him, Healey was videoed banging on the walls and urging his fellow players to help him “make it angry!” Was Healey always such a joker? “Oh yeah – I want as much pissing about as possible.” The man takes his pissing about seriously: “to be honest, professional rugby training is a bit dull – you’ve got to keep it entertaining.” Coming from a man who’s been a professional rugby player for a decade, I take his word for it. But don’t people object? “Some players don’t take it very well.” And Coaches? “Well, coaches are coaches. They think if anyone’s having fun they shouldn’t be there.” He makes an exception, though for Leicester’s forwards coach, Richard Cockerill “Richard Cockerill’s has a right laugh with us…though it’s probably because he doesn’t understand what’s being said in the conversation most of the time”. What about the outspokenness? In 2001 Healey was fined £2,500 by the Lions management for branding Wallaby Justin Harrison a “plank” and a “plod” in a newspaper column. Healey is unrepentant: “I’m always perfectly honest, and I truly believe what I say. That Australian was a bit of a dickhead.” He was widely castigated at the time, particularly by the Australian media; but since 2001, Harrison has built up a terrible reputation for niggle, and finished his Australian representative career by calling South African winger Chumani Booi a “stinking black cunt” during a provincial match. “I do feel a bit vindicated – I’ve always been a good judge of character,” says Healey; but he immediately adds that “how people are on the pitch is very different to how people are off it. I’ve met Justin off the pitch and he’s actually quite a nice lad”. It’s apparent that Healey doesn’t take himself or his public antics too seriously, certainly not half as seriously as his critics – but the same couldn’t be said of his approach to rugby. “I’m very competitive. The other day I was playing golf with [England scrum half] Matt Dawson and I threw my sand wedge at him ‘cause he accused me of cheating. When I race my daughter, who’s three years old, I push her over at the start so I always win.” I mention another famous piece of Healey footage: an R&R session during the 1997 Lions tour to South Africa at a go-karting circuit, where Healey had cut across several corners to win a race. Eight years on, Healey is not even close to repentant: “Oh yeah, that ended up with me basically driving down the middle of the track. But it was them who cheated in the first place – the car they gave me was broken and it didn’t work on the left turns.” During matches, the man who’s become known as “the mouth” in some quarters is “actually relatively quiet.”At this point I know where I stand. It’s clear Healey’s not left the Tigers’ lunch hall where he took my call and that some of his comments are intended for his team-mates’ benefit and not mine as I can overhear their laughter following his more choice comments; at the same time, it’s clear he can be genuine and very honest. We can move onto the real question – what’s gone wrong with the England team, and what can be done to correct it? Healey is not without hope. He speaks of the importance of established players taking responsibility, as he has “tried to be a bit more of a senior player” at Leicester following the retirements of stalwarts Neil Back and captain Martin Johnson. But he emphasises that the key to plugging the holes in the England side is bringing in young talent. At openside, for example, “Neil Back found a niche in the game, and he filled it very successfully. We need to find the next one.” Leicester have already had great success in bringing in young players: their academy, managed by Dusty Hare – “You might have heard of him. He wouldn’t have made an impact in the modern game, but he was a good player in his day,” says Healey of the England and Lions star who’s scored more first class points than any other rugby player – has already produced first team players like Harry Ellis, Will Skinner and Louis Deacon. Healey also stresses the importance of gaining a “winning habit”: speaking of his legendary break through the Stade Franais defence to create the winning try for Leicester’s first European triumph, Healey says “I didn’t really know what was happening. That’s the aim – everyone knows what to do and everyone just delivers. The majority of games are so tight these days that it’s all about the last twenty minutes. The difference between a good team and a poor one can often come down to confidence under pressure.”But Healey makes clear just how far England has to go to return to the top table of international rugby; he really doesn’t mince his words. “Rugby moves in trends. At the moment, the focus is on powerful runners and a forcing errors game. You could say that at the minute, England are behind the times,” Healey explains, an analysis which cannot be faulted when one compares the resurgence of the Springboks, who employ the aggressive, focussed game plan he mentions, with the directionless displays put in by England in 2005. “It stems from the coaching,” says Healey, who believes the current England management, led by Andy Robinson, will not be able to learn from their mistakes sufficiently well: “We need to change the personnel. The current lot are too much in the shadow of Clive [Woodward]. They’re trying to be Clive, but they haven’t got the skills that he had.”Fans hoping for a rapid return to the top will be disappointed. When Healey speaks of England’s rebuilding, the 2007 World Cup doesn’t feature – he’s thinking on a longer time scale “in three or four years time, once the squads have been together for a while.” He makes clear that the glaring inferiority of basic skills highlighted by the Lions tour to New Zealand is no coincidence: “It’s their national sport over there, so even as kids they just play rugby. They don’t get pigeonholed – no one’s told ‘oh, you’re tall, you’re a lock, and you’re a fly half’. Everyone just plays rugby.” Our professional coaching structure undermines skilful, adventurous players further: “players get to eighteen and coaches want them to get big and strong. There’s much more pressure and focus on contact. Players are trained to weigh up the risk of the plays they make.” At professional level, “the emphasis is on speed, and weight training, when maybe we should spend more time on basic skills.”I aim to round off by asking Healey if England can recover as Leicester have done. His response shows just how difficult the road ahead will be for England. Despite reaching the final of the English league and the semi-final of the European cup, Healey points out, “the club hasn’t won a trophy for two years”. Even if England’s performances do improve, as they have shown occasional signs of doing, they will face the difficult challenge of regaining the many titles they have lost before they can claim to be truly back at the top.ARCHIVE: 1st week MT 2005last_img

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