RUGBY UNION: Healey's own private cameo

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The Independent Online
Ieuan Evans and his fellow Scarlets caught only the most fleeting glimpse of Austin Healey as Leicester's roguish little match-winner scampered fully 70 metres for a round-the-houses try far beyond the scope of almost any other scrum-half on the planet.

They might almost consider themselves fortunate, for the massed ranks of rugby followers in England missed out altogether on Healey's declaration of embryonic genius during Leicester's 25-16 victory over Llanelli.

Over the last four weeks, the Heineken European Cup has generated rugby of such sophistication that the treadmill leagues of England and Wales, let alone those in Scotland and Ireland, look almost primitive in comparison. The players, utterly captivated by the calibre of the tournament, are on a high; so are coaches like Leicester's Bob Dwyer, who firmly believes that British sides need look no further for the elusive stepping stone between domestic and international levels.

And what do we see on our television screens? Zip. Having let a pounds 15m deal with ITV wither and die, the alleged organisers have not only failed to reach agreement with an alternative broadcaster but are not even engaged in meaningful negotiations. With four outstanding quarter-finals less than a fortnight away, the BBC and BSkyB are still in the dark as to whether Tom Kiernan and the other directors of European Rugby Cup Ltd actually want extensive coverage of the tournament at all. While the Welsh and Irish enjoy their admirable regional service, the one mass market that really matters in commercial terms - England - is being ignored. Professionalism? What a laugh.

As Dwyer pointed out after Saturday's fiercely contested game at Welford Road, golden opportunities are being missed. "It's a joke that English viewers have no access to rugby of this standard; if we are trying to attract people to the game, we're taking some wrong steps here. This is a fantastic competition but unless you can get to a ground, which isn't always easy, there is no way of catching up with it."

There was certainly no way of catching up with Healey when, in the 65th minute of a match Leicester found curiously difficult to bring under control, he confirmed himself as the most exciting scrum-half prospect in the country. Wayne Proctor's missed touch was collected by Dean Richards wide on the left, John Liley fed Healey on the switch and after a curving run against the flow, the cock-sure Liverpudlian slipped up through the gears to leave every last remnant of Llanelli cover gasping for air.

It was Rob Howley on speed, Joost van der Westhuizen with knobs on. "Austin has qualities you just can't give people," Dwyer said. "He has real pace, he's not scared of anyone or anything and he can tackle. I'd say right now that he is one of the all time great cover defenders - hell, Kenny Catchpole would have been proud of some of his tackles in the corners - and while he needs some tidying up, he could play at international level immediately."

Unlike their scrum-half, Leicester failed to hit overdrive against an understrength Llanelli outfit. There was a characteristically vigorous contribution from the Tigers' front row, where Darren Garforth reminded everyone once again that he is the best tight-head prop in the land, while Leon Lloyd looked potent enough to justify Dwyer's forsaking of Rory Underwood - indeed, the loose-limbed teenager took his 52nd-minute try with more than a degree of sang-froid gliding intelligently away from the left wing to take an outstanding pass from Will Greenwood and edge away from Rupert Moon in the opposite corner.

The mean streak was missing, though, and with Rob Liley's goal-kicking in a state of serious disrepair, Llanelli were allowed to stay in touch far longer than seemed possible given the parlous condition of their patched- up pack. Chris Wyatt came up trumps in the Scarlets' back row and Frano Botica showed some vintage touches at outside-half to coax the best from his centres, Neil Boobyer and Matthew Wintle.

For all that, the absence of half a dozen gifted back five forwards and the late withdrawal of the dangerous left wing, Garan Evans, meant that the Welsh effort could never be anything more than par-boiled. Leicester must now contemplate a home tie with Harlequins, who won at Welford Road on the last Saturday in April to deny the Tigers the Courage League championship.

Dwyer accepts there is work to be done - "We're a long way off being able to win this tournament but then, we don't have to win it quite yet" - if the England open side flanker Neil Back, who is now available again after suspension, recovers from hamstring trouble and proves his match fitness in time to reclaim a back-row place for the quarter-final, the coach should be able to add some width to his game plan.

Back, banned since last May for pushing over the Pilkington Cup final referee, Steve Lander, following Leicester's defeat by Bath, is hopeful of resuming his career at Neath on Wednesday night. "He's conscious of the fact that he has to keep his competitive nature within reasonable limits, rather than let it fall into negativity," Dwyer said. "I want aggression but it's got to be of a positive kind and I've told Neil that by behaving as he did in the cup final, he let his team-mates down."

Perhaps Dwyer and some of his fellow rugby heavyweights should get on the phone to European Rugby Cup Ltd and tell whoever answers that the organising committee are letting down far more people than Neil Back ever did.

Leicester: Tries Drake-Lee, Lloyd, Healey, Rowntree; Conversion R Liley; Penalty R Liley. Llanelli: Try Wintle; Conversion Botica; Penalties Botica 2; Drop goal Botica.

Leicester: J Liley; S Hackney, W Greenwood, N Malone, L Lloyd; R Liley, A Healey (A Kardooni, 77); G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson, M Poole, J Wells, D Richards (capt), W Drake-Lee.

Llanelli: W Proctor; I Evans (capt), M Wintle, N Boobyer, A Richards; F Botica, R Moon; R Evans (H Williams-Jones, 73), R McBryde, S John, S Ford, V Cooper, P Morris, C Wyatt, M Perego.

Referee: P Thomas (France).

European Cup

Quarter-final Line-up

Dax v Toulouse

Leicester v Harlequins

Brive v Llanelli

Cardiff v Bath

Ties to be played on 16-17 November

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