Leicester broaden the vision

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The Independent Online
Step out at Welford Road and you see a club who have already travelled into rugby union's new age. The soaring new stand, the extended clubhouse, above all the champion Leicester team, between them betoken what in rugby passes for opulence.

Looked at like that, the 31-3 win over Saracens with which the Tigers commenced the defence of the Courage League title was simply par for the course, since such victories for such clubs have become more imperative than simply desirable. Decline will henceforth come before a fall rather than a transitional period.

This is the way of the professional world, no matter how long the Rugby Football Union delays implementation of the startlingly momentous abandonment of amateurism enacted by the International Rugby Board a fortnight ago. In this, Saracens only wish they had Leicester's problems.

In their part of north London at the end of the Piccadilly line the RFU's moratorium on paying club players is a practical irrelevance, since the money to do so - for now, anyway - does not exist, nor does the scope for expansion Leicester-fashion. As long as the Southgate ground is council- owned and a dedicated public open space, professionalism will remain either a distant dream/ nightmare or something that will put Sarries indelibly in hock to outside interests.

Not so Leicester. First they are hugely successful, which means not only that they won the First Division while not playing particularly well, but also have the power to improve. "Power" being both literal and figurative: forward might won one championship but something bolder, more visionary, will be required to win another.

We saw the first evidence of new thinking on Saturday. Three exceptional tries - by Steve Hackney, Rory Underwood and Richie Robinson - whetted the appetite for more, and to that extent Leicester disappointed, unable as they generally were to pierce an obdurate Saracens defence which conceded penalties in plenty but fewer tries than might have been.

"The only team who beat us last season was the Leicester team itself," said Ian Smith, the Tigers coach who, far from being irked by the grudging response to his side's status as champions, is among the chief begrudgers. "We underachieved far too often, were disappointed with the tries we didn't score and this season we've started in the same vein. A strike-rate of one in three or four is nowhere near good enough in the First Division. Although we scored a lot of points, an awful lot still needs to be done."

The intent was clear against Saracens, even if the execution was imperfect and Leicester's final total depended as much on John Liley's kicking as on tries even if three was double last season's miserly average. The choice of Niall Malone and Jamie Hamilton rather than Jez Harris and Aadel Kardooni at half-back was evidence of selectorial concern and, never mind Smith's talk of squad interchangeability, the preferred pair are on this auspicious evidence likely to remain so.

Which would be good financial news for them if only Leicester were yet allowed to pay up in accordance with the new dispensation. Far from there being a consensus that the RFU had done the right and proper thing by putting club payment on hold, there is wide concern - as articulated here by Peter Wheeler, the Leicester president - at the officially ordained disparity between internationals and their less exalted comrades.

"Our England boys feel quite awkward about it," said Wheeler, who would have made a bob or two himself had he been England's hooker now rather than 15 years ago. "The trouble with the moratorium is the people who are breaking the rules by paying people will continue to do so. Those who don't, won't. It's difficult to say what we might do here, what with having to pay for this, but we have an overwhelming feeling that we need to do something for our players."

Wheeler was gesturing towards the 3,000-seat Alliance & Leicester stand, which cost pounds 3m but when inaugurated at the Bath game on 23 September will increase Welford Road's capacity to more than 16,000. Club membership stands at a staggering 14,000, more than could be accommodated to see Saracens and a guaranteed source of funds that will make Leicester the nearest thing rugby has to a blue-chip investment.

More so even, one supposes, than Newcastle, though the football club's absorption of the rugby club on Tyneside remains the most intriguing development of the nascent professional era and will not be deterred by the RFU. One Newcastle official said that the reformed club would for now simply put their players on someone else's pay-roll instead of their own.

Whether Sir John Hall's move into rugby sets an example for others is imponderable but, as David Campbell at Newcastle RFC Ltd mischievously points out, there are some currently successful clubs - doubtless including Leicester - who have cause for concern that some of their players may soon take a fancy to modest portion of Sir John's millions.

Or, as Sir John himself said on Saturday: "You cannot open the floodgates, then close them again. The market doesn't work like that." So how about Wigan taking over Orrell and Arsenal or Spurs taking over Saracens? Well, there is nothing to stop it and Sarries as much as any club in the First Division could find a sugar-daddy their salvation. "There are a lot of rich men in Cockfosters, aren't there?" Mark Evans, their coach, was asked.

"Yeah, Lennox Lewis lives up the road."

Leicester: Tries Hackney, Underwood, Robinson; Conversions Liley 2; Penalties Liley 4. Saracens: Penalty Tunningley.

Leicester: J Liley (D Grewcock, 74); S Hackney, S Potter, R Robinson, R Underwood; N Malone, J Hamilton; G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson, M Poole, J Wells, D Richards (capt), N Back.

Saracens: A Tunningley; P Harries, J Buckton, D Dooley, P Butler; A Lee, B Davies (capt); R Andrews, G Botterman, S Wilson, M Langley, M Burrows, J Green, A Diprose, R Hill.

Referee: A Rossall (Wirrall).

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