Rugby Union: England ruffled by Richards

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The Independent Online
Leicester . . . . . . . .11

England XV. . . . . . . .18

AS A celebration, it fell flat. In the 100 years of rugby at Welford Road, there have been many more enthralling contests than this, but at least Leicester emerged with dignity intact while England eased gingerly into what will be a long and arduous season. Assuming that they have them, England kept their best moves under wraps.

It was certainly not the seamless performance we had expected from a national XV which, during the past three years, has become the most elite club in the land. So tight knit are this England squad and so comfortable in each other's company that they must have hoped to begin against Leicester where they had left off in March against Wales. But a summer of inactivity combined with a set of new laws proved too much at this early stage in the season.

Full credit, though, to Leicester's impregnable defence which absorbed England's best shots in the opening quarter and then proceeded to go on to the offensive with some rattling good tackles around the fringes. In this department Wells, Povoas and Richardson showed their more distinguished opposite numbers a thing or two.

As the first half progressed and Leicester gained in confidence, so Dean Richards proved his massive worth. Despite the fact that Leicester had chosen to play him in the second row rather than his preferred position at No 8, he was in magnificent form in the loose and it was not long before he began his famed charges deep into England's hinterland. One crashing charge through the middle nearly made a try for Steve Hackney, who was thwarted a yard from the line by the combined efforts of Martin Bayfield and Tony Underwood.

Having gone behind after just four minutes, when Brian Moore took the first of his two strikes against the head in the first half presenting Heslop with the simplest of tries, it was Leicester who finished the half with all the advantages, save where it mattered, on the scoreboard.

Liley's penalty midway through the half was scant reward for the increasing pressure which they brought to bear on the opposition. England at this stage were guilty of over-elaboration and were infuriatingly casual, disinterested even, behind the scrum where the electricity which detonates Jeremy Guscott had clearly been cut off.

If the Leicester supporters were unable to gain cheer from the result, neither were they able to console themselves with the performances of their two exports to England, Neil Back and Tony Underwood. Underwood because he was seldom given the opportunity to display his flaring pace, and Back because he went off after just 14 minutes with a shoulder injury which, to Leicester's intense annoyance, is expected to keep him out of the game for the next three weeks.

Still, not even Back in Tigers' clothing could have prevented Heslop's second try for England at the start of the second half. Once again it came from a scrummage but this time Heslop had some work to do before getting in at the corner. He, too, was injured in the process and was replaced by Phil de Glanville shortly afterwards.

Richards was still proving troublesome, occasionally cantankerous and, not for the first time in his distinguished career, making points. There was a simmering resentment which came unpleasantly to the surface and involved Richards and Martin Hynes, who had previously been warned by the referee, Ed Morrison. It was the result of frustration more than anything else.

But even Richards with his gander up could not prevent the control which England began to exert as the game moved towards its tired and tedious close. Heslop's second try was followed by a penalty from Webb and a smartly-taken drop goal by Rob Andrew.

Moore struck for a third time against the head and Bayfield was head and shoulders above the rest of the line-out. In the circumstances then, it was a surprise that England's back row was unable to profit from the advantage given to them and Ben Clarke, for all his promise, is still some way down the learning curve.

In the end, though, it was Leicester's doggedly persistent defence and a rousing finish during which Hackney scored a try, Liley kicked a penalty and Kardooni shredded England's defence, which were the best memories of a disappointing match.

Leicester: J Liley; S Hackney, S Potter, I Bates, R Underwood; J Harris, A Kardooni; G Roundtree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, D Richards, M Poole, J Wells, N Richardson, S Povoas.

ENGLAND XV: J Webb (Bath); N Heslop (Orrell), W Carling (Harlequins, capt), J Guscott (Bath), T Underwood (Leicester); R Andrew (Toulouse), R Hill (Bath); M Hynes (Orrell), B Moore (Harlequins), J Probyn (Wasps), N Redman (Bath), M Bayfield (Northampton), S Ojomoh (Bath), N Back (Leicester), B Clarke (Bath). Replacements: M Pepper (Nottingham) for Back, 14 min; P de Glanville (Bath) for Heslop, 48 min; D Pears (Harlequins) for Webb, 55 min.

Referee: E Morrison (Bristol).

Scores: Heslop/Webb (try/con, 4 min, 0-7); Liley (pen, 19 min, 3-7); Heslop (try, 43 min, 3-12); Webb (pen, 46 min, 3-15); Andrew (drop, 50 min, 3-18); Hackney (try, 69 min, 8-18); Liley (pen, 71 min, 11-18).

(Photograph omitted)