TWICKENHAM can seldom have looked better, the weather, the pitch, the crowd begged for a contest worthy of the occasion.
Alas, we didn't quite get it. It was much too frenzied and shapeless a game for that. It certainly lacked the raw excitement of last year's unforgettable contest, or the flowing splendour of the 1988 final.
But it was, in parts, especially in the first half, grand entertainment. It was also, because of the looseness of the result, a game which maintained its level of excitement until the final whistle.
The real fascination of this game, however, lay in the private battles - the thunderous tackles of Peter Winterbottom, the vast majority of which were mercilessly aimed at Neil Back, his likely successor in the England side. Yet Back took Winterbottom's best shots and with his flair and finesse turned the game Leicester's way.
Still comfortable on the ball, Back was Leicester's chief play- maker rather than the hesitant Jez Harris, and was involved in two of Leicester's scoring moves during the first half. Try as they might and heaven knows how they tried, Harlequins could not quell Back's passionate commitment. They did, however, enjoy the briefest respite when they employed Mark Russell, their big blind-side flanker, to draw him back into the tight forward exchanges. But, with Dean Richards as his minder, Back was soon on the rampage again.
With his stumbling gait Richards so often gives the impression of a man in urgent need of hip replacement surgery, but once again he was an immense figure at the heart of the rucks and mauls, and no slouch either in the line-out where he won a lot of priceless possession.
And yet Quins were so quick to profit from the mistakes of their opponents and, in particular, the nervous uncertainty of Harris. They remained in a game in which, territorially, they were at a grave disadvantage.
Chris Sheasby, Russell and Winterbottom were the central figures in Harlequins' game plan and, although like Harris, he kicked rather too much, especially with so much talent largely wasted outside him, Paul Challinor was a more assertive figure at fly-half.
At full-back Kent Bray was more secure than John Liley which, under the avalanche of high kicks which rained down on both throughout the game, was a major plus for Harlequins.
As a result, Quins led 13-10 at half-time, their advantage coming with the final act of the half when Challinor kicked his second penalty after Back had been caught offside. Three points conceded by the Leicester flanker, but he had been hugely influential in securing eight of Leicester's first-half points.
Liley too had played a major part in Leicester's opening try, fielding a high kick and, to his relief and astonishment, finding the Harlequins' defence opening up in front of him.
Quins waved him through for almost 30 yards before eventually collaring him, but Leicester won the ruck and, with Back providing the link, Stuart Potter ran thrillingly past a confused and poorly aligned Harlequins' defence to score.
Nine minutes later, following Challinor's first penalty for Harlequins, it was Back again who set up the ruck for Harris to drop a goal. It was Harlequins, however, who scored first. Challinor's inch- perfect Garryowen put Liley in a spin. Will Carling got the first touch - it was, come to think of it, just about his only touch in the match - and Quins tore into the ruck a few yards from the Leicester line.
Thwarted the first time, they set up a second, equally ferocious ruck and Rob Glenister, impaled though he was on the Tigers' defence, had arms just long enough to reach down for the try.
If the first half had been compellingly even, the second merely confirmed Leicester's forward superiority and the fragility of Harlequins' defence. From a short penalty move inside the Quins' 22, Martin Johnson, like Liley before him, was given the green light, but this time there was no one around to stop him. Liley converted and strangely, given their territorial superiority, Leicester were ahead for the first time in the match.
There followed a monumental bust up between the packs. Fists flew, boots flailed and both Andy Mullins and Richard Cockerill were warned by the referee Tony Spreadbury, who had a marvellous match.
It was almost all over now for the Quins despite a late rally, in which Challinor kicked his third penalty. Leicester, if anything, tightened their control up front and Harris, almost for the first time, was encouraged to release his backs. Rory Underwood was given a sniff of a chance, but from the ensuing ruck Liley failed with a penalty attempt which would have sealed the match.
It didn't matter. He was given the final say a minute from the end. For Leicester the present is good; the future, with so much young talent, could be even better.
Harlequins: K Bray; C Madderson, W Carling, G Thompson, J Alexander; P Challinor, R Glenister; J Leonard, N Killick, A Mullins, A Snow, R Langhorn, M Russell, C Sheasby, P Winterbottom (capt).
Leicester: J Liley; T Underwood, I Bates, S Potter, R Underwood; J Harris, A Kardooni; G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Poole, M Johnson, J Wells (capt), D Richards, N Back.
Referee: A Spreadbury (Somerset)
Scores: Glenister / Challinor (try / con, 10 min, 7-0); Petter / Liley (try / con, 20 min, 7-7); Challinor (pen, 24 min, 10-7); Harris (drop goal, 29 min, 10-10); Challinor (pen, 40 min, 13-10); Liley (pen, 44 min, 13-13); Johnson / Liley (try / con, 50 min, 13-20); Challinor (pen, 71 min, 16-20); Liley (pen, 79 min, 16-23).Reuse content