Rugby Union: Back guides Tigers to summit

Leicester 31 Newcastle 18
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The Independent Online
THERE IS something about Leicester and referee Steve Lander that courts controversy. The Leicester crowd, renowned for their sportsmanship had reminded Lander, as he trotted out, that they had not forgotten the 1996 Cup final when he awarded Bath a controversial penalty try that cost the Tigers a victory. Boos and jeers greeted the Liverpool official, who bowed in mock appreciation.

And he ran the gauntlet a little later when he awarded Newcastle a scrum for a knock-on by Leon Lloyd when the right wing was chasing up Geordan Murphy's grubber. If Lloyd had managed to control the ball, which was right on the line, it would have been a try. The danger was cleared though, much to the crowd's annoyance.

But Lander was really flirting with his survival when he deemed that Rob Andrew had touched down before the ball went dead an hour later. The crowd howled their disapproval. Andrew had charged down Pat Howard's putative kick, and although he appeared to have lost the race as the target of his attention rolled over the dead ball line, Lander, under the noses of the supporters at that end, awarded the try. Jonny Wilkinson's subsequent conversion further fanned the flames of resentment and Lander was again the most unpopular man in the East Midlands.

His hide was only saved because almost immediately Newcastle transgressed and Murphy was able to restore the Tigers to the lead with his second successful penalty. Former Falcon Tim Stimpson, who came on moments later, added two penalties of his own. But the coup de grace came from Jon Stuart's injury time try, courtesy of some fine work by Murphy.

The talented full-back charged down an Andrew kick, broke, drew the cover and left Stuart with a straightforward run in. It was shattering enough anyway, but also served to underline the state of the Newcastle side who had flogged gallantly but not for long enough, around Welford Road. It also left Leceister with a rather more flattering scoreline than perhaps even their most loyal supporters would say they deserved. But most importantly it kept Leicester's noses in front at the top of the Allied Dunbar Premiership.

Leicester had asserted their superiority for much of the match, although they did go off the boil for a while after the interval, long enough to raise Newcastle spirits. And the biffing and banging that both teams had to endure was unrelenting throughout. If the hearts were big, the hits were massive. Ultimately the power of the Leicester pack proved decisive.

When Newcastle were penlised and the range was right Leicester opted for the touch kick into the corner. Richard Cockerill's unerring throw found Fritz van Heerden and the Saturday afternoon drivers did the rest. Neil Back, so stunning in everything he does these days got the final touch in the seventh minute and again well into first-half injury time from identical catch and drive line-outs.

Newcastle's biggest threat, the hulking figure of Va'aiga Tuigamala, was nullified too often for comfort. Each time the winger powered into the Leicester defence he seemed to find the fearless Stuart Potter or another Tiger prepared to put his body on the line.

With no Dean Ryan (out for the season) to fire the forward impetus, the backs were left with just too much to do. Even so, Andrew was able to sling out a fine pass for Stuart Legg to latch on to and crash over in the corner and Jonny Wilkinson's two penalties ensured that the Tigers did not gallop too far ahead until that runaway finish.

Leicester: G Murphy; D Lougheed, S Potter, J Stuart, L Lloyd; P Howard (T Stimpson, 64), A Healey; D Jelley (G Rowntree, 60), R Cockerill (D West, 60), D Garforth, M Johnson (capt), F Van Heerden, P Gustard, M Corry, N Back.

Newcastle: S Legg; J Naylor, M Shaw, R Andrew (capt), V Tuigamala; J Wilkinson, G Armstrong; G Graham, R Nesdale, M Hurter, G Archer, D Weir, P Walton, R Beattie (S O'Neill, 52-65), R Arnold.

Referee: S Lander (Liverpool)

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