Rugby Union: Leicester undone by Dunn

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The Independent Online
HERE is a turf accountant at Sudbury these days, but whether Wasps are a good bet to stay the course for their second Courage Championship is as problematic as the weather. While Dean Ryan's team were beating Leicester 14-13 to go top, it teemed.

With Bath having a day off league rugby and lying in wait for Wasps in March, caution is imperative for Rob Smith, the coach who quit last season when Wasps were a deeply unhappy club. 'As soon as we start thinking about championships, we tend to lose focus on what we're doing week by week,' he said. Smith is again making the journey from Bristol - and Wasps are happier than ever they were without him.

They were happier still when they became the only First Division side with three wins out of three. With the rest inexorably falling by the wayside, this achievement, however early and modest, is not to be sniffed at because this is not like other leagues. This one runs all season long but, since there are only 12 fixtures, it is more a series of spurts than a marathon. Wasps' win was significant because the loss of even one game jeopardises your title chance.

This is how Leicester now find themselves. In the end they did not deserve to prevail in a game of infuriatingly variable quality, steadily and familiarly deteriorating from a position of clear advantage. Having escaped by a point against Gloucester a week earlier, this time they lost by the same margin, which was a kind of justice.

The rugby with which Leicester created and scored Stuart Potter's try, with Tony Underwood the initiator and Steve Hackney magnificently piercing the Wasps defence, was a glorious instance of the best exploitation of dynamic wing- play. Raining or not, how very wasteful not to have repeated it.

On the other hand, perhaps it was no surprise. For some reason, Smith supports the experimental maul law which has the side taking the ball in handing over the put-in if a scrum ensues, but it is now clear that it is not having even the trivial intended effect of making the game more exciting. Rather, it has made it a mess.

With titles at stake or relegation to be avoided, the risk involved in passing the ball along a back-line is too great and certainly greater than it was, because backs, for obvious physical reasons, tend not to maul well enough to get it away in contact. Thus in every game I have seen this season kicking has been virtually the only tactic until you reach your opponents' 22.

And even then, as Saturday at Sudbury showed, kicking remains an option. Hoist an up-and-under from the 22, wrap up the catcher and win the put-in: steps one, two and three. It is rugby by numbers and thoroughly unappealing, yet Smith complained that his team had not kicked enough (nor well enough) and in the circumstances was right to do so. Help.

There had been enough decent rugby to tantalise you into yearning for more. But alas, the sustained pressure that makes excitement is no longer possible. All of a sudden rugby is a mad rush with no capacity to slow down, to stop and think. So when the International Board stops and thinks about what it has done - at its annual meeting next spring - it will have no alternative but to rescind this law. Won't it?

Leicester and Wasps, sharing the league leadership, made this point because their encounter had epic potential which was not realised. When Wasps scored the crucial try, it had to be from short range, a tap penalty driven on first by Francis Emeruwa and lastly by the England B hooker recruited from Gloucester, Kevin Dunn.

Dunn was a heroic figure in conditions which would have suited him in his Kingsholm days. So, too, was Dean Ryan, on his best behaviour after the fuss over the blow which had poleaxed Simon Dear against Harlequins. 'Dean is much maligned at times,' Smith said - which, as those of us who witnessed Ryan representing England in Argentina recall, has at times been debatable.

Not in doubt, though, is his gung-ho influence as captain on and off the field. Smith insists, by the by, that the Dear incident was blown out of proportion; Ryan is a nice lad really. 'He has done a superb job,' his coach enthused.

Ryan and John Wells were called in as peacemakers, an unlikely Cyrus Vance and David Owen, by the referee after a one- in all-in brawl which gave viewers something to mutter about. Yes, Rugby Special is back, late as ever.

In effect, the BBC has its eggs in the football basket and is scarcely any longer bothered with non-domestic rugby. Summer tours, the Lions, the Springboks' return: all have gone to ITV which, having missed out on the Premier League, has money to invest in the oval ball. The season traditionally starts for the Beeb in October, one month after everyone else. No wonder ITV fancies its chances of winning the next television contract. On current form - surely the criterion for sporting selection - it deserves it.

Wasps: Try Dunn; Penalties Buzza 3. Leicester: Try Potter; Conversion Liley; Penalties Liley 2.

Wasps: A Buzza; S Pilgrim, F Clough, G Childs, C Oti; A Thompson, S Bates; G Holmes, K Dunn, J Probyn, R Kinsey, D Ryan (capt), F Emeruwa, M Greenwood, M White.

Leicester: J Liley; S Hackney, S Potter, I Bates, T Underwood; J Harris, A Kardooni; G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, D Richards, M Poole, J Wells (capt), S Povoas, N Back.

Referee: A Reay (Bristol).

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