Leicester's success runs deep

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The Independent Online
Leicester would prefer not to become or be known as the new Bath, since the new Leicester will do very nicely. But now that the Tigers have clawed their way to the Courage Clubs' Championship, and have therefore become the new Bath in the sense that Bath had previously won it four times in a row, it is reasonable to wonder whether they will go from here to establish a Bath-style hegemony.

Probably not, if only because Bath themselves will not let them. But at the same time Leicester's claim to be the best in England is based not only on their first championship since the league's inaugural season in 1987-88 but also on the outstanding success of the entire club. The 17-3 defeat of Bristol at Welford Road which concluded the campaign was merely the outward and visible sign of something quite profound.

They have not lost to Bath at any level this season. Leicester's under- 21s won their competition and so did the second team, who are quaintly called the Extra First XV. Besides, the actual First XV comprised far more than 15 players, the Bristol match being a perfect case in point when only Dean Richards of Leicester's six-strong England World Cup contingent was permitted to play.

Yet despite this virtual evisceration, they won with considerable ease, as well as winning - as they have all season - without playing particularly well. This used to be an exclusively Bathonian trait and heaven help the rest of the First Division if Leicester ever find a bit of form. Their modest final tally of 27 tries in 18 league games - especially compared with the 58 amassed by third-placed Wasps - gives statistical evidence of the hard road they had to travel to their title.

Saturday's match was a case in point. Leicester responded to the rapturous greeting of the 13,750 who filled the ground with a try of premium quality after three minutes and then left our whetted appetites unsatisfied for the remaining 87. John Liley kicked three of seven penalty attempts and Jez Harris dropped his usual goal. Bristol, stubborn but utterly uncreative, managed one Mark Tainton penalty in response.

Amid the tedium of much of the rugby, at least the try gave the proceedings a fleeting glory. Typically and easily, Richards deprived David John of the ball and thereby set in train a counter-attack that put it through Kardooni, Harris, Robinson and Kilford before Stuart Potter arrived on the wide outside.

This was so simply effective that it was, alas, too much to imagine it might be repeated. Which is the story of Leicester's season really, and does not therefore speak too highly of the rest of the First Division. The widespread strategic liberation has brought an abundance of positive rugby in the league this season, yet it has been won by a team who by their own admission have not played especially well.

"When this side put together the best they are really capable of, we will become the new yardstick of first-class rugby," Ian Smith, the Leicester coach, said. But that was two years ago after his Tigers had beaten Harlequins in the cup final and, perverse as it may seem to say so in the first flush of their next success, it has taken a while and evidently will take a while longer yet.

On the other hand, Bristol would be perfectly happy to be as self-critical if they, like Leicester, were winning things as opposed to talking about winning things. Sixth place is a serious disappointment not only because last season they were fourth but also because this season was heralded by the customary Bristolian loose talk.

"A lot of our lads have to get more street-wise," was how Derek Eves, the outgoing captain, explained the disappointment. Over the eight months his side subsided from promising beginnings, unable to cope with the debilitation of constant injury and, on this evidence, devoid of the slightest idea of how to use good ball. "We have to learn to score tries when the pressure is on," Eves said. At Leicester they never once looked remotely likely to score any.

The difference with the Tigers could scarcely be more pronounced, since the champions' triumph was based squarely on the strength of their squad just as much as on individuals, on their capacity to cover for the absence of key players. Saturday's game was a case in point.

Only now can it be seen how valuable their autumn rota system, criticised at the time and abandoned after Christmas, was in preparing them for the disruption caused by the dictates of England in the spring. "When all is said and done, we have players of ample capability to slot in and pull off victories such as this one, Richards said. "They have done us proud."

No one, though, has ever done Leicester prouder than Richards himself, who hesitantly conceded afterwards that he might just be willing to allow his name to go forward to carry on as captain if only someone would nominate him. For those of us wistful for times past, England's iconic No 8 is the perfect throwback, a guy who still plays the old game for pure pleasure.

Thus for Richards the reception accorded the Tigers when they took the field was louder and a lot better than its Twickenham equivalent and the winning of the league as precious an achievement as doing a Grand Slam with England. This is precisely the attitude, giving club as great a primacy as country, that has made Bath so good for so long and could well be about to do the same for Leicester.

Leicester: Try Potter; Penalties Liley 3; Drop goal Harris. Bristol: Penalty Tainton.

Leicester: J Liley; S Hackney, R Robinson, S Potter, W Kilford; J Harris, A Kardooni; D Jelley, R Cockerill, D Garforth, P Grant, M Poole, J Wells, D Richards (capt), W Drake-Lee.

Bristol: P Hull; D John, N Smith, M Denney, G Sharp; M Tainton, M Chudleigh; A Ozdemir, M Regan, D Hinkins, G Archer, M Fountaine, R Armstrong, I Patten, D Eves (capt).

Referee: J Wallis (Bridgwater).

COURAGE LEAGUE

UPS AND DOWNS

NATIONAL LEAGUE ONE

Champions: Leicester

Relegated: Northampton

NATIONAL LEAGUE TWO

Champions: Saracens

Relegated: Fylde, Coventry

NATIONAL LEAGUE THREE

Champions: Bedford

Promoted: Blackheath

Relegated: Clifton, Exeter

NATIONAL LEAGUE FOUR

Champions: Rotherham

Promoted: Reading

Relegated: Askeans (to League Five South); Broughton Park (to League Five North)

NATIONAL LEAGUE FIVE NORTH

Champions: Walsall

NATIONAL LEAGUE FIVE SOUTH

Champions: London Welsh

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