The second-youngest coach of the Premier League takes its name as Leicester deploys a high kick of a special kind
Lee Blackett is a head coach who made a name for himself and is in an upward spiral with Leicester. Two thoughts after the Premiership round last weekend, another one affected by Covid cancellations, now a fifth victim at Franklin’s Gardens with the East Midlands derby on Saturday.
The way in which Wasps beat Exeter was impressive in a repeat of last October’s Premiership final. Although not as much as last August at Ashton Gate when they showed Bristol just how far they had to go, the Chiefs were not at their best, but the systemic way they were taken apart affected the scoreline rather than the outcome.
Leicester were involved in another clash the next day, this time at Bath’s home. After the West Country Club sacked his father Mike as head coach, George Ford, returning to Welford Lane, took it out on his former employer by fielding a high kick with a difference.
The Bath full-back, Anthony Watson, has seen several Ford passes, both as a teammate in England and as a club foe, but the spirals sent into the air by the fly-half were correctly assessed and had maximum impact, fading as Watson went to catch the ball and making a knock-on more probable than a catch.
The initial thought was that if it caught on, at a time where there is an abundance of it in the professional game, it would lead to an increase in kicking.
It’s an attacking choice that generally gave both possession and territory to Leicester and left Watson wondering where to place himself.
Fly-halves used to use the spiral kick to touch the ball, but their propensity to fade on its way down included an aspect of danger that kicking coaches eradicated by using an Aussie Rules strategy that trades distance for precision in the professional period. It took a long time for the spiral bomb to come out of the lab, and it runs the risk of slipping off the kicker’s side and exposing the team defensively, but Ford has made it a long type of a kick pass.
It is a shame that Ford will have little time before the Six Nations to build it.
Leicester are not playing this weekend, although their next scheduled European Challenge Cup match against Bayonne is in question after the Top 14 club withdrew unilaterally from the tournament after a series of positive Covid 19 tests. The Tigers, who in recent weeks have suffered with viral issues, are unlikely to make the trip there.
Next week, Wasps face Montpellier and have made it four wins in a row with an emphatic defeat at Gloucester and a home loss to Newcastle after an uncertain start to the season.
After the departure of long-time rugby director Dai Young, Blackett was appointed head coach eleven months ago, initially in an interim capacity.
It seemed that his promotion was focused more on finances than on ambition. The heady days after 2014, when Wasps left High Wycombe for Coventry and signed players like Willie le Roux and Kurtley Beale to complement Danny Cipriani, Elliot Daly, Jimmy Gopperth and Christian Wade, had long faded. The club had pressing pre-pandemic problems and the team had lost much of its luster: when it returned three years later, only six players from the side that played Exeter in the 2017 Premiership final were there.
It proved to be an inspiring decision.
Shortly after his full-time coaching appointment, Blackett said he didn’t want anything to change, either a player or a coach. He said: “I want them to be who they are,” “We were in a hole, but the players had faith that we could turn it around.”
The Wasps have won 17 of the 21 games Blackett has been in charge of. His player management was exceptional: before he took over, having been attack coach since 2015, the team was one of the most adventurous in the Premier League, but it had become increasingly brittle. He decided to add rather than take away, and although moving the ball when it was his turn, the way they competed against Exeter at the strongest points of the Chiefs – scrum, lineout, maul and gainline – showed what he had learned in a short time.
In the Premiership, he is the second youngest coach and has yet to be promoted as a candidate to succeed Eddie Jones in England, but that seems to be only a