Rugby Union: Leicester stir amid mud and madness

Bath 3 Leicester 13
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The Independent Online
IT SEEMED like a good idea at the time: a seasonal set-to between the biggest, baddest clubs in English rugby on the banks of the River Avon. As it turned out, a downpour of Old Testament proportions effectively forced the players to do their stuff in the river rather than beside it, so what might have been a minor classic became a major squelch instead. Neil Back's impersonation of a human snorkel was fairly entertaining and there were one or two inspirational touches from Geordan Murphy, who won the game for Leicester with a 58th-minute try of undeniable class, but the 8,000 souls who paid upwards of pounds 15 a head to spend their Boxing Day in an Atlantic squall will have questioned their own sanity.

But then, madness and rugby go hand in hand. Shortly before kick-off yesterday, the Leicester chief executive, Peter Wheeler, issued his own summary of the state of play on the political front - a summary that was positively mid-winterish in its bleakness, underpinned as it was by his suspicion that lunatics of varying descriptions remain in charge of the 15-man asylum. The former Lions hooker accused the Rugby Football Union - or rather, a handful of extremely influential Twickenham types - of playing a waiting game in the hope of squeezing out the club owners, rather than making any genuine attempt to reach a compromise over the future structure of the domestic game.

"If you suggested that some people in the RFU are fighting the same battle of three years ago, I'd have to say that you weren't too far from the truth," he said, pointing the finger squarely at his old front-row mucker Fran Cotton, the chairman of Club England. "You sense that prevarication is part of the strategy, that there is a feeling at Twickenham that if the union can keep delaying and procrastinating, the owners will walk away. If that is the theory, those responsible don't know the owners nearly well enough. The Premiership One clubs will talk to the union anywhere and at any time, but they don't seem to want to talk. All I'm really saying to them is this: involve us in your discussions and involve us quickly. I fear there is something big looming here."

Wheeler confirmed Leicester's support for a new pounds 85m British League, as proposed by the Gloucester owner, Tom Walkinshaw, but stressed that the clubs were more than happy to thrash out Rob Andrew's parallel blueprint based on a franchised, ring-fenced English Premiership. "A lot of us see the beneficial aspects of Rob's plan, but it doesn't have a valuation and it hasn't been costed. Tom's proposal has a playing structure, an administrative structure, a valuation, a guaranteed income of pounds 1m per year per club and provides the professional game with the one thing it needs more than anything: stability. It has become clear to me over the last four or five weeks that whenever people start talking, the walls can be knocked down. The problem here is that we're not talking."

There were more immediate problems out on the pitch, where the local fire brigade had spent all morning pumping thousands of gallons of excess water from the playing surface. Leicester, still without the injured Martin Johnson, whose Achilles problem is now of concern to England as well as the Tigers, played with the elements - or was it the tide? - early on and clearly enjoyed the better of a farcically soggy first half. John Akurangi, a 29-year-old Maori prop who flew into the East Midlands from New Zealand on Christmas Eve, made an instant contribution by shoring up the suspect Leicester scrum, and there were striking contributions from both Martin Corry and Back, who apparently learned everything he knows about wet-weather leadership from Captain Nemo.

Somehow, Bath restricted the visitors to 3-3 at the break, but the conditions left their quick and elusive back division with nowhere to go. By comparison, the hard men in the Leicester threequarter line - Pat Howard and Dave Lougheed - were in clover; time and again, they stopped burly Bath forwards in their tracks and relieved them of the ball. How ironic, then, that Austin Healey and Murphy, light-footed runners stranded in a sea of mud, should break the game. Healey fielded a kick from Jon Callard in his own half, slipped away from the first-up tacklers and released his Irish club- mate, who combined sweetly with Corry down the right touch-line before running in from 30 metres.

Bath: Penalty Callard. Leicester: Try Murphy; Conversion Stimpson; Penalties Stimpson 2.

Bath: M Perry; I Balshaw, M Tindall, S Berne, K Maggs; M Catt (J Callard, 11; A Adebayo, 75), J Preston; C Boyd (J Mallett, 73), M Regan, V Ubogu, M Haag (capt, W Waugh, 59), S Borthwick, N Thomas (A Gardiner, 59), G Thomas, B Sturnham.

Leicester: T Stimpson; N Ezulike (G Murphy, 52), C Joiner (S Potter, 77), P Howard, D Lougheed; A Healey, J Hamilton; G Rowntree, D West (R Cockerill, 64), J Akurangi (P Freshwater, 54), M Corry, B Kay (A Balding, 72), L Moody (P Gustard, 64), N Back (capt), W Johnson.

Referee: A Rowden (Berkshire).

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