Andy Key believes the Leeds Carnegie squad he leaves behind has the strength of mind and ability to achieve Premiership survival.
Key’s shock departure this week as director of rugby has overshadowed preparations for their trip to Saracens tomorrow.
Leeds had picked up six points in their last three games – a sequence that began with a belated first win at Gloucester and continued with creditable losing bonus points against Bath and champions Leicester.
In the wake of last Sunday’s defeat to the Tigers, Leicester’s director of rugby Richard Cockerill said Key would be the reason why Leeds would stay up, describing him as the ‘nucleus’ of the club. Yet three days later he was dismissed.
“I’m shocked and disappointed,” Key said. “It has come as a complete surprise, I wasn’t expecting it at all.
“In the last eight weeks as a club we had made a huge demonstrative statement that we were going from strength to strength.
“You only have to see the last four games when our performances were exactly what they needed to be.
“The side will only get better, and I have a firm belief in that.
“Hopefully what has happened this week does not jeopardise that. It’s important that Leeds stay up and hopefully the team can stick together.”
The task of keeping Leeds up has been made easier this week with the release of the club’s two international players, Hendre Fourie and Steve Thompson, from England duty.
Both have been named in the starting XV for the trip to Vicarage Road.
Head coach Neil Back said: “It’s great to have them back. They’ve come from a real strong, winning environment, so they’re confident.
“The pleasing thing is they were desperate to get back and help us with the fight, which is exactly what we wanted.”
On Key’s dismissal, and the increased responsibilities on his shoulders, Back added: “Players and staff need to be really positive now and help achieve our objectives.
“The responsibility is on everyone and we will share in that success.
“The change has been made – now we’ve got to adapt and absorb the things Andy did.
“I’m confident we can with strong leadership, and with the leaders in the team.
“We need everyone to be pointing in the same direction.
“This has happened and we’ve got to deal with it. It’s like losing a key player five minutes into a game;the rest of the squad have to pick up the reins.”