Rugby Union Commentary / Courage Championship: Saints' anger over England expectations: Back makes his point with Tigerish finish

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The Independent Online
BETWEEN club and country, in England it is no contest. Country always wins, and that is one reason for England's grand successes: no one has doubted that the welfare of English rugby from top to bottom depends primarily on the welfare of England rugby.

Until now, anyway. When Leicester thrillingly beat Northampton 13-12 with Neil Back's injury-time try, it had been more punishing than anything international players should have to undergo one week before France play at Twickenham.

As it also followed the England squad's long weekend in Lanzarote, Northampton's Barrie Corless reckoned it was more than his principal players could stand. It was certainly more than Corless, Saints' coaching director, could stand.

It was time, he suggested, for clubs to stand up for their rights as the developers and providers of international-class talent. The fact that, in defeat, Northampton's title aspirations had been savagely undermined, seemed almost secondary.

First there was the absence of the full-back Ian Hunter, a hamstring twinged in Lanzarote. 'Every time we've had boys away with England they've come back injured. Ian has had three games all season for Northampton, so we've got used to playing without him. He was fit when he went.'

Then there was a general point about Hunter, John Olver, Martin Bayfield and Tim Rodber, all of whom had returned from the Canaries unable to move a muscle. Last Wednesday's training had been abortive because they were all so tired, reducing Saints' preparation for Saturday's match of the day to an hour on Thursday.

What was more, no sooner had Leicester come to Franklin's Gardens and conquered than all the England and England A players were off to London for yesterday's session. And then they were getting together again on Wednesday. 'If they can't achieve what they want in five days in Lanzarote, it's a nonsense,' Corless sighed.

'We want our players to be there; it's great for the club and our supporters and it's something we haven't had for a long, long time,' Corless said. 'But there's got to be a bit of two-way thinking. It's not England that get them fit. They just test them.'

The trouble, as Corless pointed out, is that the England management - although Geoff Cooke was present on Saturday - and club luminaries such as himself simply do not get together. Moreover next season home-and-away, with 18 league fixtures rather than 12, will widen the club-country dichotomy.

But equally the problem is immediate. Judging by his own players, Corless fears it is England just as much as Northampton who will suffer. How on earth, he mused, can you expect them to come off the Lanzarote treadmill, then play in a game of such intensity and importance as Northampton v Leicester and then take on the French, all in the space of three weekends? 'By the time they get to play France they're going to be on their knees.'

Not that he was blaming this defeat on England-induced exhaustion. That was down to mistakes and above all Saints' failure adequately to exploit the advantage they held for at least an hour. Even so, a 12-3 lead was beginning to look as if it would suffice when Leicester set out on their late rescue mission.

'I had given it up as lost,' Tony Russ, Corless's Leicester equivalent, admitted, knowing that if his expectation had been realised his team's championship aspiration would have become pretension. As it is, both Northampton and Leicester are now four points behind Wasps, a gap that is less bridgeable than it appears. Dangerous as it may be to say so, the First Division is probably between the leaders and Bath, 61-7 destroyers of Rugby.

Things went best for Northampton in the creation and execution of their two tries, the first a lightning strike involving a half- dozen players before its scorer Frank Packman; the second a free-kick up-and-under wickedly placed by John Steele and regathered by Matthew Dawson on behalf of Harvey Thorneycroft.

Alas for Saints, Steele converted only the first and missed four penalty kicks, any one of which would have placed Northampton beyond Leicester's reach. Then at the very end the poor fellow missed touch with a relieving penalty, thereby giving the grateful Tigers one last counter-attack which ultimately produced the vital try.

When Leicester received a penalty it was Jez Harris, a maligned but occasionally elusive stand-off, who fashioned the opportunity for Back, who was delighted to be able to put two fingers up (metaphorially, of course) to Cooke.

Thus Leicester, for so long inferior, finished ahead. As so often, it took desperation before a side summoned the courage to open up. In the Tigers' case, the monotony of tactical kicking in preference to passing is the sheerest folly.

'We are devastating when we get the ball wide because we have such pace,' Kevin Andrews, a former club president, said. This is a precious gift and there are few clubs who could say as much, but there was a hint of criticism as well as simple explanation in his voice.

All right, Rory Underwood may have found catching the ball a problem on the infrequent occasions it reached him but brother Tony was constantly looking for involvement, Campese-style, and Leicester went within an ace of three or four tries before Back's breakthrough.

John Liley, who had landed two penalties but otherwise kicked as waywardly as Steele, made a conversion that was easier in theory than practice. The two points Liley ensured were rather more significant to Leicester than the Carlsberg-Tetley Trophy now at stake between the clubs.

Put it this way: the Tigers did not go on a lap of honour with their inaugural bauble. Indeed, the real significance was probably not even the improvement in Leicester's league position, and certainly not the trophy. It was that this young side had the fortitude - we already knew there was ability in abundance - to withstand adversity.

If they can do it now, what may they achieve in a future bright with promise? 'If you look at the Leicester side five years from now, I don't think it will be too different from the Leicester side today,' Russ said. The rest of the First Division would love to be imitating the action of these Tigers.

Northampton: Tries Packman, Thorneycroft; Conversion Steele. Leicester: Try Back; Conversion Liley; Penalties Liley 2.

Northampton: J Steele; J Griffiths, N Beal, F Packman, H Thorneycroft; S Tubb, M Dawson; G Baldwin, J Olver (capt), G Pearce, J Etheridge, M Bayfield, P Walton, W Shelford (D Merlin, 66), T Rodber.

Leicester: J Liley; T Underwood, S Potter, I Bates, R Underwood; J Harris, A Kardooni; G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson, M Poole, J Wells (capt), D Richards, N Back.

Referee: E Morrison (Bristol).