Rugby Union Commentary: Russ's Tigers hungry for their final reckoning

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The Independent Online
FOR ALL their hat-trick of league titles, Bath are unused to being hare rather than hound and Leicester's dogged pursuit of the champions appears destined to go to the very end. The champions' lead still stands at a precarious two points.

What a prospect. With apologies to the Bard, the uncertain glory of the April day when these fine sides have their return match will be worth the waiting. It is prospectively as great a club occasion as this season will see. 'It will be the championship decider,' Tony Russ, Leicester's coaching director, says, and no one - except perhaps at Wasps - is arguing.

There is, though, nothing dogged about the post-Christmas actions of Russ's Tigers. Their rugby against the Barbarians was a liberation after the autumnal claustrophobia of lock-tight Courage league defences. Put another way, it was marvellous therapy, so restorative that when Leicester summoned up some more Courage on Saturday they exhilaratingly trounced Northampton 36-9.

Saints came to Welford Road fancying their chances now that Martin Bayfield was restored to fitness and a winning run had finally been put together. In the event, their young backs had so little to offer in attack that they were mostly forced into uncomfortable defence. But they did this so successfully that Paul Grayson's three penalties equalled Jez Harris's penalty and two drop goals as late as the approach of the final quarter.

Ultimately there was a limit to Northampton's last-ditch, try-saving tackles and Leicester, whose rugby even when tries were not forthcoming was played with pace and great panache, rampaged to 27 points in the last 24 minutes, 24 in the last 17 and 21 from three converted tries in the last 14. The gap has been closed: Bath's points-difference advantage is down to a mere 52.

This means that Leicester have not only to win at the Rec on 9 April but also to rely on someone else doing them a favour and on their own infallibility in the meantime. 'When they get into the weekly grind of league, international, cup, international, league, I remain convinced that someone else is going to beat Bath,' Russ said.

He has a fair point that once the Five Nations' Championship starts impacting on the Courage Clubs' Championship Bath may suffer. The trouble with this convenient theory is that Leicester are liable to suffer just as much, plus the awkward fact - awkward for the rest of the First Division - that if any players are capable of performing at club level in between the international intrusions it is Bath's.

Wishful thinking or not, Russ had every right to feel profoundly satisfied - not because of the sudden rush of tries with which the Tigers eventually savaged the Saints but because of their excellence throughout the game. 'The thing that delighted me was we played 80 minutes of well-controlled, 15-man rugby,' he said.

When Russ said 80, he meant 80: Harris's first drop-shot took 14 seconds and his third conversion was the final kick of the match. Likewise the figure 15: now Lawrence Boyle's Oxford University rugby commitments have ended, the 15 really are complete. Enviably, Leicester have a settled team with a quality player in each position, though less cover than they would wish, with the lesser lights beginning to shine as brightly as beacons like the Underwoods, Richards and Back.

Thus Jez Harris maintained his prolific form with another 21 points and an exhibition of outside-half play as good as anything the First Division has seen this season. Stuart Potter consistently carved gaping holes in the Northampton midfield. Russ cannot understand why Potter was left at home when England toured Canada last year but at least he will be in the new A squad.

As for Harris, Russ is not being tendentious when he argues that current form should place him ahead of the more favoured Paul Challinor and Saturday's opposite number, Paul Grayson, in the England fly-half pecking-order. Meanwhile, Aadel Kardooni chivvied and chided at the heels of the Tiger pack. Four years too late, Matt Poole gave an inkling of why England took him to Argentina in 1990.

Amid the wreckage, it was easy to forget how resolute Northampton's tackling had been until Leicester broke free, or indeed that it was only once the formidable England forward Tim Rodber had gone off with a pulled hamstring that Northampton were overwhelmed. Cause and effect? Not quite, but Rodber could hardly believe what he then witnessed on television in the treatment room.

'I was disgusted by what I saw,' he lamented. What he saw was a sustained attack concluded by Tony Underwood after a cut-out pass by Neil Back; Poole driving over after the New Zealander Martin Steffert had won and then lost a line-out for Northampton; a Wayne Kilford- Underwood one-two giving Kilford number three. Rodber, it should be said, did not exonerate himself from his own criticism.

The Northampton vice-captain said: 'There is no excuse for the five internationals in our pack not going out and playing to at least 95 per cent of their ability when in the Leicester pack they had young guys who want to play for England and played 110 per cent.'

Rodber added that it was 'a humiliating feeling' and confessed that Glenn Ross, the austere New Zealander who coaches Northampton, had not spared his Saints when they retreated to the dressing-room. 'You didn't want to take a tape-recorder in there. I was hiding in the showers. It's good because people need to know they were absolute crap.' The Tigers, on the other hand, have come up smelling of roses.

Leicester: Tries Underwood, Poole, Kilford; Conversions Harris 3; Penalties Harris 3; Drop goals Harris 2. Northampton: Penalties Grayson 3.

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

Northampton: I Hunter; K Morgan, M Fielden (B Taylor, 68-71), J Fletcher, N Beal; P Grayson, M Dawson; G Baldwin, J Olver (capt), G Pearce, N Edwards, M Bayfield, P Walton, T Rodber (S Foale, 63), M Steffert.

Referee: M Bayliss (Gloucester).

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