Rugby Union: Cherry-picking Tigers eat their fill

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Gloucester 18 Leicester 23

IT IS ONLY a weak ligament we are talking about here; not a snapped Achilles, or a broken back, or an all-over stress fracture of the body, but a measly centimetre of fibrous connective tissue supporting the muscle structure of Phil Vickery's bull neck. Sadly, for the Kingsholm faithful, this apparently modest orthopaedic complication has left a once virile Gloucester pack in a state of collective emasculation. From unique to eunuch in a matter of weeks.

Vickery's condition, not yet career-threatening but of profound concern to both player and club, goes to the heart - or, rather, the balls - of Gloucester's predicament. Shorn of the raw strength their 22-year-old Cornishman brings to their front row, Gloucester have no set-piece platform worthy of the name. And that means trouble with knobs on. It does not take a scientific mind of Newtonian stature to arrive at the most basic law of rugby physics: namely, that what goes back in the scrum goes out with a whimper.

Bristling with a nap hand of international tight forwards and a titan of a No 8 in Martin Corry, Leicester inflicted upon the Cherry and Whites a roasting of such hellish proportions that the visiting backs could afford an afternoon off and still pocket the spoils of victory. Three of Tim Stimpson's six penalties came as a direct result of the Tigers' scrummaging superiority. And, while it was possible to listen to a Wagner opera in the time it took England's former full-back to complete his kicking routine, he at least gave the Gloucester heavy brigade ample opportunity to reflect on their inadequacy.

Disturbingly for the Kingsholm infantry, the Vickery-shaped cavalry is not expected to arrive for another five weeks at least. "I can't see Phil playing before February," said Richard Hill, the Gloucester coach. "We need to get him absolutely right before we pick him again, because no one in their right mind takes chances with a neck injury. He's had CT scans, MRI scans, brain scans, you name it, and none of them have revealed any structural damage. But he does have a ligament weakness, and it's a serious problem, especially for a prop. If you have a dodgy ankle ligament, you can strap the ankle. What you can't do is strap a neck.

"Phil is worried about the long-term implications for his career and I don't blame him. He must be thinking: `Hey, I'm 22 and if I'm not very careful, I could find myself back on the family farm shovelling pig manure.' It's a desperate shame, not least because he has such a big future internationally. He can't even run at the moment because it would jar his neck."

By sharp contrast, Leicester are far too well endowed to regard any one player as indispensible; having arrived in the Cotswolds without Joel Stransky, Will Greenwood and Nnamdi Ezulike, they simply shrugged their shoulders and played to the strengths that remained. They even managed to make light of the temporary absence of their outstanding captain, Martin Johnson, who was sin-binned at the end of the first quarter for his frank and forthright contribution to a nasty little flare-up at the coalface.

Gloucester attempted to capitalise, but failed so miserably that Johnson returned from his lonely dressing-room vigil to find his own side three points to the good.

Indeed, there was an air of inevitability about the proceedings, despite Gloucester's second try three minutes into the second half - a carefully planned strike created by Steve Ojomoh's inspired blind-side feed from the base of an unstable scrum and completed by Mark Mapletoft in the right corner. Although Mapletoft's handsome conversion left Leicester 11-15 down, there was something distinctly false about the deficit; sure enough, Corry and company changed up a gear, pitched camp in the Gloucester half and earned Stimpson enough shots at goal to wrap up the result.

"They're title material," acknowledged Hill, bluntly adding that his own side were quite the opposite. "The Leicester pack is the best in the business at scrum time; they work overtime in that area and have based their whole game around it.

"Not many sides can hold them up front, and, if you add to that their consistency, the fact that they are more capable than any of their rivals of holding their form, then you have to say they are potential champions.

"As for us, Premiership points are almost of secondary importance now. The priority is to crack the secret of maintaining our concentration and commitment throughout the full 80 minutes of a game, something we still find impossible away from home.

"I've been here three years now, and it's time we put this whole away thing behind us. Look at the top sides and you see 15 players with real belief that they will win, no matter how bad things might seem. If you have two or three without that belief, as we do, it spreads like a cancer through the whole side. We need to start believing."

Leicester's levels of belief are positively Papal and, even at this relatively early stage of the campaign, it is difficult to argue with the Gospel According to Saint Deano.

"The beauty of these players is their perfectionism," he beamed on Saturday evening. "They know the perfect game of rugby is unachieveable, but it doesn't stop them trying." For all their flaws at Kingsholm - and they were far from immaculate in many areas - they are well on course for a taste of heaven in May.

Gloucester: Tries Johnson, Mapletoft; Conversion Mapletoft; Penalties Mapletoft 2. Leicester: Try Lougheed; Penalties Stimpson 6.

Gloucester: C Catling; B Johnson (M Mapletoft, 36), T Fanolua, R Tombs (capt), P Saint-Andre; S Mannix, I Sanders (S Benton, 61); A Windo, C Fortey (N McCarthy, h-t), A Deacon (A Powles, 63), R Fidler, M Cornwell (D Sims, 63), K Jones, S Ojomoh, N Carter.

Leicester: T Stimpson; L Lloyd, S Potter, P Howard, D Lougheed; G Murphy, A Healey; G Rowntree (D Jelley, 69), R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson (capt), F Van Heerden, P Gustard, M Corry, N Back.

Referee: N Williams (Wales).