Leicester tested

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The Independent Online
Bristol 29

Leicester 43

GOOD neighbourliness does exist after all in the West Country. Gloucester may have trampled over Bath's championship hopes last week, but Bristol did their plucky best to put the damage right yesterday.

Leicester had seemed well on the way to the victory they needed to keep neck-and-neck with Bath at the top of the league. Then Bristol, whose equilibrium had been unhinged by the decision of their England lock Garath Archer to rejoin Newcastle next season, rolled up their sleeves, rolled down their socks and got to work, very nearly snatching an exciting victory. Trailing 30-9 and with the game apparently over, the home side summoned hidden reserves to retaliate with a couple of tries and a string of penalties to narrow the margin to a mere four points.

The Bristol scrum-half Kyran Bracken grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck with his darting runs in broken play. First Eben Rollitt barged over, then Bracken himself crossed. The outside-half Mark Tainton converted both tries, adding to his five penalties, and suddenly Leicester seemed vulnerable.

But the difficulty for Bristol was that twisting the Tigers' tail only served to enrage the beast. Leicester pulled themselves together just in time, tightening their play and the pressure on Bristol until finally Stuart Potter found space to cross and put the game beyond doubt. A pair of tries for Rory Underwood and a try from John Liley, to add to his three penalties and three conversions, were sufficient.

The absence of Archer and his England team-mate Mark Regan often left the home pack looking vulnerable, particularly with Dean Richards returning to bolster the Leicester back row after two matches out through injury. Early on, Richards and Neil Back knocked gaps in a Bristol defence which gave the impression it was about to shatter.

It is a tribute to Bristol's sheer guts that they never quite gave way. But the realisation obviously also hit home that a game-plan was needed to cope with life after Archer, whohad been courted by Northampton before accepting what Bristol's director of rugby, David Tyler, described as "a very attractive offer" from his former club.

Leicester were deep in defence near their own line when they conjured their first try. Detecting too much commitment to the left of the park, they swiftly swept the ball wide along the line and upfield where Underwood took over to cruise in.

Jez Harris opened Bristol further with two classic outside-half breaks - both times there was an outrageous dummy and through the gap he went to create tries for Liley and Underwood. With Martin Johnson soaring above the line-outs and Richards looking a giant among men on the ground, Leicester's forwarddominance seemed complete.

Bristol had only guile and grit with which to retaliate. First, a string of quickly-taken penalties resulted in Rollitt's try and then Bracken dodged around a scrum for Bristol's second. Suddenly, the Tigers looked limp but, perhaps with thoughts of Bath up the Avon, they pulled themselves together in the nick of time.

Bristol: P Hull (capt); D Breeze, S Martin, K Maggs, R Knibbs; M Tainton, K Bracken; A Sharp, A Lathrope, D Hinkins, P Adams, M Fountaine, M Corry, J Pearson, E Rollitt.

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

Referee: C White (Cheltenham).