Leicester show devastating pace of change

RUGBY UNION COMMENTARY
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The Independent Online
In the distant past - actually it was only seven years ago but it seems an age - Leicester were the inaugural champions of the Courage league and now that they are at last about to win it again they may reasonably reflect how different our rugby world has become in the meantime.

And reflect, too, on how it may yet be about to change since, far from resting on the laurels of this campaign, they are already devotees of a pan- European competition for which success in the English championship will be the qualificatory prerequisite.

So titles gained by triumphs such as the ecstatic and enthralling 31- 21 win over Bath, which has given them a two-point lead over the champions of the past four seasons, will soon become the means to an end and not an end in themselves. In the dear, dead days of 1987-88, simply to play your First Division fixtures was quite enough.

This was, to a degree, literally the case as in that inaugural league season teams were awarded a point simply for turning up (and four for winning) and Leicester wended their way to the title through a fragmented programme without fixed Saturdays.

Nottingham, yes Nottingham, were leaders for a while, mainly because they fulfilled more of their fixtures earlier than anyone else. They departed the First Division three years ago; now they may be about to lose their place in the Second as well.

But if you want a still better example of changed times, look at Bath. The 1987-88 season was the last in which this great club failed to win a trophy; they were an unthinkable fourth in the league. Since then they have won nine of the 12 available trophies.

They have the 1995 cup final yet to play and, if past precedent is anything to go by, Wasps had better beware. When Bath last lost their league chance by losing at Saracens in 1990 they went on to overwhelm all remaining opposition culminating in the annihilation of Gloucester in the cup final a week after Gloucester had themselves forfeited the league by losing at - those Beeston boys again - Nottingham.

The unpredictable events are a caution to Leicester that even this tumultuous, occasionally brutal beating of Bath does not guarantee the subsequent defeat of Sale and Bristol, and after Saturday's game there was the puzzling spectacle of Ian Smith, the Tigers coach, moaning about his side's faults rather than enthusing over their thrilling victory.

Just as well, though, for him to keep their feet on the ground because the response of the Welford Road full house was commensurate with winning the league rather than merely being on the way to winning it. "It may surprise some people that it's not pleasure and delight; we aren't happy," Smith said.

By "we" he meant only the coaches, because the Leicester preponderance among the 14,000 crowd, not to mention the 15 Tigers themselves, had no such compunction. Smith was specifically concerned by the concession of two tries by a usually parsimonious defence which meant that with 10 minutes left a Leicester lead that had been up to a dozen points was down to three.

It is at moments such as these that Bath are at their most stubbornly magnificent.

During a dreadful, ill-disciplined first-half display they had conceded five penalties to John Liley and a drop goal to Jez Harris against two Jonathan Callard penalties and in the second half Harris dropped two more goals after Callard had added his third penalty.

To begin with, it had been fractious stuff best exemplified by the petulance with which Victor Ubogu responded to Stewart Piercy, a referee whose persistent punishment of Bath had a material effect on the outcome of the game and therefore the championship.

Ubogu was fortunate Piercy did not show him the yellow card when, after already forfeiting 10 yards for dissent, he twice declined to step forward and hear the admonition the referee rightly insisted on delivering. Afterwards Ubogu could not get out of the ground quickly enough.

John Hall, the herculean Bath captain, was more circumspect but no less pointed: "I don't want to sound bitter. I congratulate Leicester but one thing Bath do not do is collapse scrums on their own line and give away three points."

Nor, one presumes, would they ever in Andy Robinson's absence admit to going offside, yet this game was full of it.

Their belated offensive produced tries by Adedayo Adebayo and Mike Catt but by then they had made so many blunders and occasionally played such crass rugby that the sudden narrowness of the margin was hardly equitable. Ultimately, Bath were reduced to hopeless counter- attacking and Gareth Adams's desperation throw across his posts turned out to be a scoring pass to Rory Underwood.

"Rory was delighted; it was the first pass he'd had all afternoon," said the Bath coach, Brian Ashton, whose very presence at Welford Road was a reminder that, however its critics may carp and whatever Rupert Murdoch may have in mind, rugby union remains an essentially amateur game for an ordinary coach even at this extraordinary level.

Ashton was the assistant England coach in New Zealand in 1985 and was Jack Rowell's Bath assistant for four seasons before succeeding on Rowell's England appointment last year. That it is not working out has nothing to do with anticipation of a rare failure to win the league but of the problems of combining coaching such an institution and being a teacher at a Somerset public school.

Ashton has already resigned as a housemaster at King's School Bruton but will be required in the next autumn term to teach on Saturday mornings and preside over the school team on Saturday afternoons. He hopes to change the relevant people's minds by the end of this month, when his teaching contract will be up for renewal. This is amateurism; this is ridiculous.

Leicester: Try R Underwood; Conversion Liley; Penalties Liley 5; Drop goals Harris 3. Bath: Tries Adebayo, Catt; Conversion Callard; Penalties Callard 3.

Leicester: J Liley; T Underwood, R Robinson, S Potter, R Underwood; J Harris, A Kardooni; G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson, M Poole, J Wells, D Richards (capt), N Back.

Bath: J Callard; A Swift, P de Glanville, M Catt, A Adebayo; R Butland, I Sanders; V Ubogu, G Adams, J Mallett, M Haag, N Redman, J Hall (capt), B Clarke, S Ojomoh.

Referee: S Piercy (Goole).

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