Rugby Union Commentary: Harris has the drop on Wasps: Tigers relentless in pursuit

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SO THE Tigerish pursuit of Bath goes on, thanks breathlessly to the injury-time drop goal by Jez Harris which gave Leicester their 15-13 win over Wasps at Sudbury. Harris is the unlikeliest and best story of the domestic season.

Young Jeremy went through long years when followers of the Tigers would groan whenever Les Cusworth had to drop out and Harris come in. He then went through the indignity of having to wait in line while Leicester recruited first Brian Smith, then Gerry Ainscough.

He has been barracked by his own at Welford Road and blinked with deja vu when Niall Malone, an Irish international, became the club's next outside-half newcomer. But instead it is Malone who languishes in the second team, a feeling Jez knows all too well, and now that he is not so young (29) Harris is suddenly in his pomp.

'All it is is confidence,' he said in modest celebration of another match-winning performance. 'Before, I was in and out of the side all the while and could never get a platform. In the last couple of years I've been first choice and if you're in the team you build on it each week.' It sounds simple.

Harris has been amassing points at an extraordinary rate since he took on the Leicester kicking duties: 175 in the past two months, 26 on his representative debut for England's Emerging Players in Spain.

On Saturday, he reinforced his point by kicking all 15 to beat Wasps, but it is his play as an outside-half, still unobtrusive but now catalysing his threequarters with confident and varied distribution, that is as striking. That Leicester did not score a try - whereas Wasps did - was scarcely his fault.

The nub of his coach's tribute, as befits Ian Smith, himself an unimpeachable Leicester loyalist, is that Harris deserves the good times after all the bad. 'I'm delighted to see the people of Leicester responding to him in a warm and friendly manner, which they haven't always done. He can look forward to a long and successful career in the first team.' To which the Wasps coach Rob Smith, sitting alongside, sardonically retorted: 'So you're not recruiting, anyway.'

Smith (R) had seen his team's title hopes finally buried, not yet mathematically but in reality, in as tightly fought a match as the First Division has seen this season. Turning round only 3-0 ahead after playing with a wind blowing off the steppe was a grave disappointment, not to mention a dismal return from 40 minutes devoted mainly to attack.

Frozen fingers did not help Wasps in their policy, adopted since cup and league passed beyond them, of all-out adventure and, sure enough, Rob Andrew's one penalty from four attempts had been overhauled by two from Harris eight minutes into a fluctuating second half.

Leicester never quite exerted the control Wasps unrequitedly had earlier on and they fell behind again when Phil Hopley scored the only try, a fabulous though rare instance of smooth combination involving Dallaglio, White, Bates, Andrew, Damian Hopley, Childs, Bates and Andrew again, and penultimately Huw Davies.

This left the 4,000 who jam- packed Wasps' postage-stamp of a ground thirsting for more, but instead the raw excitement of the final 25 minutes reflected the closeness of the score rather than the quality of the rugby. A bit like Scotland v England really, and again it was the try-scorers who fell at the last.

Andrew having converted, it required two more penalties by Harris to re-establish Leicester's lead. But Andrew in turn kicked his own second, Leicester somehow survived a period of frantic Wasps pressure and eventually, with Wasps attempting to play out time amid the slowest of slo-mo rolling mauls, Neil Back came away with the ball and when it was fed back for Harris's drop goal the second-half clock was past 41 minutes.

Even then Andrew had one last chance but his seventh penalty attempt was his fifth failure and Wasps, who had crossed the Leicester line four times in all, were left fancying what might have been - which is the story of their season, really.

While Leicester remain two points behind Bath, with a points- difference deficit of 49, Wasps are now nine points behind the leaders, who have five games to play. Next at Bath, as it happens, are Wasps - followed there by Harlequins and Leicester - and all this as well as a cup round in which Wasps are no longer concerned is interspersed with the remains of the Five Nations' Championship.

This is more than quasi-amateur flesh and blood can stand, which explains why Geoff Cooke, a spectator at Sudbury on Saturday, is so concerned at the relentlessness of his players' buffeting. Andrew and all four of the Tigers - the Underwoods, Johnson and Back - who faced the Scots were put through the mangle again.

'I'm lucky because I'm out of the cup,' Andrew said, complaining that, post-Murrayfield, he had not felt fresh for this game. That will undoubtedly have its effect next Saturday against Ireland (whose coach, Gerry Murphy, was in attendance to appraise Leicester's Laurence Boyle) but the cumulative fatigue of the next 12 months is even more worrisome.

English rugby, it seems, cannot have its cake in the toothsome form of week-by-week high-grade league and cup rugby and eat it by expecting England to win the Webb Ellis Trophy as well. 'This fixture list has got to be looked at,' Andrew said. 'This time next year we will be three months away from the World Cup and, if we're not careful, we'll be on our knees.'

Wasps: Try P Hopley; Conversion Andrew; Penalties Andrew 2. Leicester: Penalties Harris 4; Drop goal Harris.

Wasps: H Davies; P Hopley, G Childs, D Hopley, S Hunter; R Andrew, S Bates; G Holmes, K Dunn, J Probyn, R Kinsey, M Greenwood, L Dallaglio, D Ryan (capt), M White.

Leicester: W Kilford; T Underwood, L Boyle, S Potter, R Underwood; J Harris, A Kardooni; G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson, M Poole, J Wells (capt), C Tarbuck, N Back.

Referee: C Harrison (Leighton Buzzard).