Leeds take punt on league’s eager learner

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Daryl Powell, the new head coach of Leeds Tykes, was a pioneer from the start. As a much-coveted rugby league prospect in 1984, he became the first signing by new club Sheffield Eagles rather than join champions Hull Kingston Rovers – a decision both prescient about, and influential upon, the subsequent trajectory of the two clubs.

He always seemed destined for coaching. An enthusiastic and proficient practitioner in the Eagles’ innovatory schools coaching schemes, he was articulate and intelligent off the field and an astute enabler – a midfield playmaker creating time and space for those around him – on it.

Less anticipated, though, was the move across the codes that sees him make his debut as head coach in tomorrow’s Heineken Cup tie at home to Cardiff. Leeds can reach the quarter-finals if they win and other results go their way. After that it is back to battling against relegation from the Guinness Premiership.

League coaches in union are nothing new. Few teams, and fewer successful ones, have been without their league-rooted defence coach in recent years. Defences constructed by Phil Larder (Leicester and England), Clive Griffiths (Wales), Dave Ellis (France) and Shaun Edwards (Wasps) have carried off World Cup, Six Nations, Heineken and Premiership trophies.

But Powell’s appointment, following that of Edwards as head coach at Wasps and Denis Betts to run skills and development at Gloucester, reflects an expansion of the league diaspora. It comes after only three months as offensive coach, much more rapidly than either he or director of rugby Phil Davies expected, a response to miserable early-season form.

It is one thing to instruct players in one element of play – and there can be little doubt that league has plenty to teach union in terms of the giving, timing and taking of passes, angles of support running and beating an opponent one on one – but quite another, even with Davies there to advise and support, to take on the whole-game responsibilities of the chief coach.

But coaches changing code do not face the same challenges as players. A player lives on the conditioned reflex that allows him instantaneously to make the right decision at full physical stretch – changing codes means adjusting instincts hard-wired by a lifetime in a different game. Coaching is analytical and reflective and draws on skills of motivation and man-management not specific to any sport.

And Powell’s union education predates this season. In July 2003, after 27 months as head coach of the Tykes’ Super League partners Leeds Rhinos, he concluded that he needed to learn more. It was typical of Powell to make the admission, equally characteristic of Leeds chief executive Gary Hetherington – the man who signed him for Sheffield in 1984 – that he did not sack him, but made him director of rugby and encouraged his quest for knowledge.

Part of that research sabbatical was spent at England Rugby Union squad sessions with Larder, another mentor from playing days with England, Great Britain and Keighley.

Personal relationships ease pioneering appointments. Just as Rupert Lowe’s friendship with Sir Clive Woodward underpins Southampton FC’s punt on the former England and Lions coach’s change of code, so Powell’s working relationship with Hetherington over 20 years will have reassured the Leeds boss about this left-field move.

But Hetherington has too much experience of struggle in both codes to make decisions on sentiment. The price of a mistaken appointment at Wasps or Leicester is struggling for a Heineken place.

At Leeds it means relegation. They cannot afford bad appointments, and this has every chance of being a good one.

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