Leicester opt for the functional

RUGBY UNION: Referee criticised as free-flowing Harlequins are frustrated at The Stoop where Tigers sacrifice style for practicality
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A kindly description of Leicester's rugby is functional and, as they showed last season, functionalism can even win titles. But when it comes to rugby's occasional capacity for uplifting the heart and soul - and no, there has not been too much of it in the Courage Championship this season - they don't.

Which is to say they do not do so often enough. The fantastic try with which they had completed the previous defeat of Bristol might just as well have been a mirage for all the relevance it had to their 29-25 win over Harlequins at The Stoop. Churlish as it may seem to complain when a job has been done, this is nothing like what Leicester's coaches consistently lead us to believe is their design.

The exchanges did not lack stimulation, partly because the score was so close and partly because of the amount of free running Harlequins did, not least Will Carling until he cricked his neck near the end. (Neil Back was not so fortunate: he cracked a rib.)

On the other hand, this was another example of the low skills inherent even at this exalted level of club rugby, as well as the inability of English referees to take the broad view of a match instead of dutifully concentrating on specifics.

One or two Quins were inflamed afterwards at the way Jerry Wallis persistently penalised them in the tackle. More to the point, I should have thought, was the peremptory whistling which so badly stifled advantage. Three line- out penalties to the side who had just secured the ball were both symptomatic and enough to make you scream.

Some did. Keith Richardson, Quins' coach, may have contented himself with a few diplomatic remarks about not getting the better of the referee's decisions but, in private, at least one very senior Harlequin with a direct line over the road to Twickenham was spluttering with fury.

In practical terms, Harlequins destroyed themselves by missing their chances and being so persistently penalised. It handed the game to John Liley, who is in such sweet kicking form that he landed all five of his penalties, as well as converting both of Leicester's tries.

I suppose it could be argued that, when you have such a prolific provider, the imperative for tries simply does not exist. How else to square the consistently expressed aspiration of Leicester coaches with their team's drab product? The Tigers are changing from lettering to numbering in a fortnight, but will they change their stripes?

Perhaps the players do not perceive the dichotomy, because afterwards the self-criticism of the acting captain, Rory Underwood, was aimed at Leicester's defence and not their attack. Rory was the lucky one: Harlequins created the conditions not only for their tries by Chris Sheasby, Peter Mensah and Daren O'Leary, but did the same for Underwood when Rob Kitchin's pass intended for Carling was intercepted by the England wing.

Otherwise, it was familiar stuff. A calf injury meant the discarded England No 8, Dean Richards, was absent, but with or without him Leicester should not be expected to do other than shove their way over at a short-range scrum - except that Mick Watson dived in to concede a penalty try before Richards' deputy, Chris Tarbuck, could touch down.

It was not an auspicious day for the abrasive Watson, who received a yellow card for stamping on Aadel Kardooni's leg in the first half and had to do emergency second-row duty for all of the second after Peter Thresher's departure. But prone as he is to various forms of ill-discipline, he is also a dynamic forward and his buccaneering mobility epitomised how Quins, pack as well as backs, set out to attack.

The contrast was more or less complete. "You come away thinking: 'Is that what the game is about?' And it is. To get two league points against us, it is," Richardson lamented. "I don't think Harlequins, even if we gave them pounds 1m a match, could ever play like that. It is alien to the club and alien to their nature."

To see what he means, we have to go back to a period of Harlequins ascendancy during the second half when they moved the ball to left and right, won a ruck or three and were poised for tries when a Tiger, on the logical premise that three points conceded are better than seven, would illicitly launch himself over the ball. Richardson, a partial witness, suggested a penalty try or, failing that, a yellow card.

On the first occasion, the ball was back in Kitchin's hands and ready for further recycling when Wallis intervened, a frustration doubled when Paul Challinor blazed a long way wide from in front of the posts. The second time he did not repeat the blunder, although his body- language as he reluctantly stepped up to place the ball betokened a considerable crisis of confidence.

It was a perverse performance by Challinor who, although the England A outside-half only last year, was discarded by Quins as soon as David Pears was restored to well-being. In Pears' renewed absence, Challinor alternated between unfamiliar bravura and abject misery. So, in his way, he epitomised Harlequins.

They remain third, and Leicester's prosaic practicality maintains them two points behind Bath and now four ahead of Quins. Perhaps they are showing a Bath-style capacity for winning when in difficulty, and perhaps people should therefore be less censorious. Or perhaps not. "I thought I guarded my words pretty well," Richardson added, before uttering a derogatory expletive as soon as the tape-recorders had been switched off.

Harlequins: Tries Sheasby, Mensah, O'Leary; Conversions Challinor 2; Penalties Challinor 2. Leicester: Try Underwood, penalty try; Conversions Liley 2; Penalties Liley 5.

Harlequins: C Wright; D O'Leary, W Carling (A Jones, 75), P Mensah, W Greenwood; P Challinor, R Kitchin (capt); S Brown, S Mitchell, A Mullins, A Snow, P Thresher (G Allison, 38), M Watson, C Sheasby, R Jenkins.

Leicester: J Liley; S Hackney, I Bates, R Robinson, R Underwood (capt); N Malone, A Kardooni; G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson, M Poole, J Wells, C Tarbuck, N Back (J Wingham, 52).

Referee: J Wallis (Bridgwater).

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