Leicester give skill the boot

Pilkington Cup: Saracens made to suffer after a stylish start as brave Wakefield fall short at the death against holders
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The Independent Online
ANOTHER monotonous grind at the office. Punch-ups, penalties - there were 44 of them - and kicking as aimless as it was endless. If either side did have a constructive idea, it was more often than not stifled by the inability to transmit it into action. Even though he gave Saracens a head-start by missing his first two penalty kicks at goal, John Liley made them suffer for their rampant indiscipline by proceeding to kick 25 points from seven penalties and two conversions.

Six of these penalties came during a first half in which Saracens' tongues worked at a greater rate of knots than their feet or their brains. Twice in that period, their bone-headed and argumentative front row were marched back 10 yards following injudicious remarks to the referee on both occasions, bringing Liley into range.

Not that Leicester's behaviour in this respect was much better. The steady erosion of the referee's authority by the constant questioning of his decisions and the open hostility by the players is one of the more sinister developments in the modern game. The Leicester crowd, biased certainly, but usually courteous and knowledgeable, were not on their best behaviour either. But they at least could be excused for their frustration at what was unfolding in front of them.

How long club rugby can survive on such meagre rations of skill and excitement remains to be seen. The tolerance threshold of this observer is perilously close to breaking-point.

Saracens, when they weren't intent on breaking almost every law in the book, did at least attempt to divert their remaining energy into creative pursuits and scored a very fine try in the opening quarter. Steve Ravenscroft burst on to Andy Lee's pass and scored by the posts. Lee's conversion gave Saracens a 7-3 lead to lift their spirits.

They were after all facing a stiff breeze, and in the line-out Craig Yandell was creaming off some enticing possession. But for all their good intentions they had neither the wit nor the guile to break down Leicester's determined defence a second time.

Nor did they have the expertise up front to avoid an attritional battle with those acknowledged masters of the tight game. On the retreat either through the wind-assisted kicking of Jez Harris or else through their own big mouths, Saracens were forced to concede penalties and points to the insatiable Liley.

In the third minute of the second half and again later on, they were forced to concede penalty tries against the irresistible force of the Leicester scrummage.

The inescapable fact is that Leicester, England's champion club, are a nine-man team. They have a pack of forwards as good as any in the land and in Liley a remorselessly accurate goalkicker. That apart, they have little to offer. Not once in the game in which they enjoyed the lion's and the Tigers' share of possession did they seem capable of manufacturing a try through the speed and subtlety of their backs.

Harris's startled run through what could loosely be termed the Saracens defence hardly fell into the classic category. Their midfield suffers from terminal constipation and, if you'll pardon the indelicacy, needs a good dose of the runs. Most worrying of all is that a whole generation of young supporters are growing up believing that this is the way the game should be played.

Leicester: J Liley; S Hackney, J Overend, P Delaney, R Underwood; J Harris, J Hamilton; G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson, M Poole, C Tarbuck, N Back, D Richards (capt).

Saracens: M Singer; K Chesney, D Dooley, S Ravenscroft, M Ebongalame; A Lee, P Friel; R Andrews, G Botterman, S Wilson, M Langley, C Yandell, T Diprose (capt), A Phillips, R Hill.

Referee: B Campsall (Yorkshire).