Rugby Union: Leicester are left in shock

COMMENTARY

According to the rulebook, there are 28 laws governing the game of Rugby Union - about 27 too many in the view of most self-respecting prop forwards. Now there is a 29th; known as the Tigers' Principle, it dictates that class players produce their worst performances in unison to ensure maximum embarrassment.

How else to explain a Heineken European Cup final upset of such staggering proportions? It was no particular surprise that Brive, dark horses from the outset of the competition in October, should have left Cardiff Arms Park with the silverware, nor especially startling that the winning margin was so comprehensive.

When French sides blow as hot as Alain Penaud's multi-faceted outfit did on Saturday, a 28-9 hiding is almost a let-off for the opposition. But the manner of their victory was something else again.

Intelligently primed by their coaches, Laurent Seigne and Pierre Montlaur, they took on the Tigers in their most obvious areas of strength and expertise and rendered them impotent. As a result, Martin Johnson spent an entirely unproductive afternoon at the front of the line-out and Dean Richards lost more ground than he gained in the dark depths of the driving mauls.

You had to see it to believe it. Add to that the fact that Austin Healey's hitherto faultless cover tackle game went AWOL - on anything like a normal day, the feisty little scrum-half would have denied both Sebastien Viars and Gerald Fabre their crucial corner-flag tries - and you are looking at one bad day at the office.

Johnson's unusually docile display will not have encouraged the Lions selectors, who have pencilled him in as a main man for this summer's series in South Africa. Grant Ross, born in New Zealand but redeveloped by the same firm that built the Arc de Triomphe, gave Leicester's kingpin ball- winner a rough ride from first minute to last and with the equally aggressive Eric Allegret reducing Matt Poole to a 6ft 6in, 19st non-entity, the Tigers' supply line was cut off at source.

Seigne admitted that he had worked overtime on the line-out phase - "you need to be a post-graduate to understand all the different calls," said Richard Crespy, the fast and effective French prop - and the Brive tactics left Bob Dwyer, the Tigers coach, some way short of amused.

"I am constantly reminded that one of the problems with my coaching technique is that I insist on playing within the laws," he said. "I keep on getting indications that it might not be an advantageous approach."

But Dwyer knows as well as anyone that one of the great arts of rugby is calculating exactly how much a referee will allow you to get away with.

Duncan Hall, the second Australian on Leicester's coaching panel, readily accepted that Brive got their sums right. "There was plenty going on at the line-out but we didn't have the sense to slow things down, widen the gaps and give the referee the opportunity to check it out. We weren't clever enough."

Besides, there was more to the Tigers' demise than a line-out misfire. Gregori Kacala and Loic van der Linden were so superior in all phases of the loose exchanges that not even a torrent of Leicester possession would have been a guarantee of progress.

Kacala's very passable impersonation of the Matterhorn on legs has sent a number of leading British clubs rifling through the bottom drawer in search of a new chequebook - Cardiff have already spoken to the shipyard- sized Pole from Gdansk - and the way he turned over Richards, John Wells and Neil Back at will on Saturday more than justified the interest.

And then there were the Brive backs, a thoroughbred band of bold, adventurous musketeers, their act sharpened not only by withering pace but by the confidence to use it. Penaud was majestic at outside-half, David Venditti a constant danger in midfield, Viars supreme as an attacking full-back.

Leicester, almost pedestrian by comparison, saw their hard-earned reputation as the best defensive side in Britain torn to ribbons as Sebastien Carrat, a 10.38 man over 100 metres, topped and tailed them with two sprinter's tries in the last quarter.

Having spotted Jean-Claude Skrela, the French national coach, in the stand, Montlaur could not resist a loaded comment. "I just hope he takes notice of what he saw out there," he snapped, and his sentiments won immediate support from the beaten Richards. "The game was close to Test standard and I honestly believe Brive would fare very well against some international sides," said the chastened Deano, for whom the physical wounds of battle were as nothing compared to the anguish of defeat.

"To be honest with you, this has come as a bit of a shock to us all," he admitted. "Some of the things that happened to us out there...well, we're just not used to them. We're going to have to regroup and come out fighting in the two competitions that are still there to be won."

It was, however, the Heineken that Leicester cared most deeply about. On Saturday, they came up against a wonderfully gifted and extraordinarily disciplined side who cared that little bit more.

Leicester: Penalties J Liley 3. Brive: Tries Carrat 2, Viars, Fabre; Conversion Lamaison; Penalty Lamaison; Drop goal Lamaison.

Leicester: J Liley; S Hackney, S Potter, W Greenwood, R Underwood (L Lloyd, 74); R Liley, A Healey; G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson, M Poole, J Wells, D Richards (capt; E Miller, 67), N Back.

Brive: S Viars; G Fabre, D Venditti, C Lamaison, S Carrat; A Penaud (capt; R Paillat, 71), P Carbonneau; D Casadei (E Bouti, 72), L Travers, R Crespy, E Allegret (A Rees, 67), G Ross, L van der Linden (Y Domi, 79), F Duboisset (T Labrousse, 59), G Kacala.

Referee: D Bevan (Wales).

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