Rugby Union: Leicester prove too strong for Exiles

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reports from Sunbury

London Irish 21 Leicester 46

Leicester play a game with which London Irish are not familiar and vice versa and the difference in philosophies was highlighted by the response to a spell of play following a first half that was as brilliant as it was breathtaking.

The Exiles, 22-8 down at one point, made it 22-21 by half-time and could not wait for the restart, but wait they had to, for the benefit of Sky Television. "We were on top and were ready to go," Rob Henderson, the Irish centre, said. "It seemed like a 10-minute break and we had to go back into a huddle. It was a disruption we didn't need."

Nevertheless, London Irish resumed where they had left off and were going for the Tigers' jugular. Leicester conceded a string of penalties and Michael Corcoran kicked at goal. This was anathema to Clive Woodward, London Irish's unorthodox coach, who was signalling to the captain, Garry Halpin, to run the ball. There was another hiatus when the tannoy asked for the owner of a green Volvo to remove his car as it was blocking an ambulance. The owner was Halpin, who had to tell somebody on the touchline where his keys were.

"We blew it big time," Woodward said. "We had them rattled. We slowed the game down and that is exactly what we didn't want to do. They could have folded." It was not that Corcoran failed with the penalties that bothered Woodward, it was that he attempted them in the first place. Tony Russ, the Leicester coach, saw it differently. "If Corcoran had knocked over a couple of those kicks," he said, "the result could have been different."

The general consensus was that the Exiles had given it their best shot and that, predictably, it was not enough to mortally wound the Tigers, although the try by Harris, from a blatant knock-on, was cruel. "I thought we could score more tries than them," Woodward said. "We had more chance of winning with the ball in hand. It's not a question of entertainment. They were starting to panic. I've never seen Dean Richards throw a punch before."

Richards, twice warned by the referee, said: "I never felt in any doubt we would win, although in terms of discipline we let ourselves down." Halpin and Neil Back received yellow cards and at one stage the animosity spread to the stands where grown men - one of them the father of the Leicester lock Martin Johnson - had to be separated by police.

This was meant to be a classic encounter between the runner and the grinder and in the event it was too fast and loose for Richards and not fast enough for Woodward. Leicester became intoxicated with the Irish spirit and the decisive try, initiated by Rory Underwood on the left wing and finished by Phil Delaney on the right 80 yards later, was a cracker.

"It wasn't how we planned it," Russ admitted. "I don't know why we played as loosely as we did." There are those outside the Richards fan club who would wish that Leicester, only five defeats in two seasons and 18 victories in a row, play it off the cuff more often. Under Woodward, the Irish wear their art on their sleeve. Henderson scored a lovely try and created another and Russ made a joke about getting his chequebook out to buy the Exiles' midfield. At least, we think he was joking.

The Irish won a surprising amount of possession, especially through Colin Hall at the lineout and, if there is a criticism, apart from a weak defence, it is that they do not vary their attack enough. The odd subtle kick from David Humphreys would have helped. While Leicester are still in with a shout of the double, London Irish regroup tonight for a vital league match at Wakefield on Saturday. They will be without Tim Ewington, who broke an ankle at Sunbury.

"If we don't get promotion, this team will be decimated next year," Halpin said. Gabriel Fulcher, the Ireland lock, is available for the remainder of the season and if they go up, they hope to recruit Victor Costello and Jeremy Davidson, although Keith Wood has been lost to Harlequins. The Exiles estimate that First Division rugby will cost them pounds 1.85m annually and that Guinness, who pumped in pounds 100,000 last year, will have to raise the ante considerably if they are to remain the club's sponsors.

London Irish: Tries Humphreys, Henderson; Conversion Corcoran; Penalties Corcoran (3). Leicester: Tries Underwood, Wells, Johnson, Delaney, Harris, Poole; Conversions Liley (5); Penalty Liley; Drop goal Harris.

London Irish: C O'Shea; M Corcoran, P Flood, R Henderson (S Burns, 32), J Bishop; D Humphreys, T Ewington (N Briers, 79); L Mooney, R Kellam, G Halpin (capt), A Meadows, C Hall, A Dougan (P Irons, 33), B Walsh, C Bird.

Leicester: J Liley; S Hackney, R Robinson, P Delaney, R Underwood; J Harris, A Kardooni; G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson, M Poole, J Wells, D Richards (capt), N Back.

Referee: G Gadjovich (Canada).