Rugby Union: Liley punishes Quins' crucial blunders

Leicester 23 Harlequins 13
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The Independent Online
THIS was as tough and compelling a cup tie as you could wish to see. With four minutes remaining, Paul Challinor, selected for his ability as a goal-kicker, watched helplessly as his long-range penalty to level the scores rebounded off a post. A minute into injury time, Rob Liley, his opposite number, who had missed four kicks at goal, broke clean through from a ruck close to the Harlequins line to ensure Leicester's place in the Heineken Cup semi-final. For all the quality of their individual talent, it was Leicester's collective, instinctive know-how and their street-wise experience which carried the day.

In truth, the match was decided in a three-minute spell early in the second half when Richard Cockerill found himself in the heart of a rolling maul following Martin Johnson's clean catch at a line-out. The Leicester forwards swarmed over the line and a try was given. Liley conveted and shortly afterwards landed his second penalty to give Leicester the lead for the first time.

The contrast in styles could not have been more clearly defined. Leicester, with their now-legendary ABC front-row club playing together for the 100th time, seldom chanced their arm beyond the confines of their magnificent pack. Quins, on the other hand, lost no opportunity in engaging their thoroughbred backs and on several occasions produced sumptuous moves, most of them involving their full-back Jim Staples. None was better than the build-up to Dan Luger's try after seven minutes.

Bill Davison won a line-out, the ball reached Will Carling and with a perfectly-flighted pass he set Staples free. The full-back linked with Daren O'Leary, who put Luger over in the corner.

Quins nevertheless made too many errors at crucial times. Early in the first half, when they were camped in Leicester's 22, they made three major blunders. Two forward passes and one instance of sloppy support play took the pressure off their opponents. Thereafter, Leicester succeeded to a large degree in cutting off the Quins' ball carrier from his support runners.

But only when the palpably-unfit Neil Back was replaced by the young flanker Eric Miller did Leicester's forwards begin to impose themselves. Liley's third penalty attempt just before half-time, which this time was successful, soothed fevered brows.

The second half began sensationally when Carling, profiting from yet another O'Leary burst, scored in the first minute to stretch Quins' lead to seven points. But from that point on Leicester took control.

There was an inevitability about Cockerill's try. Once Johnson had taken the line-out a couple of metres from the line, Leicester were irresistible.

This score was all the more galling for Quins, who had devised a strategy to keep the ball away from the touch-lines as much as possible. This was a tremendous tribute to Johnson, who is unquestionably in a class of his own. The trouble with him is that he so often feels the need to prove it with unnecessary acts of belligerence. It was when Leicester had taken the lead for the first time in the match, after 49 minutes, that we would see the true extent of Quins' revival this season. They are, we are told, no longer the soft city dandies. But they still appear to lack the mental toughness to reclaim matches which, like this one, start slipping away from them. For this season at least, their commitment to Europe is over, while Leicester can look forward to hosting a semi- final against the reigning champions Toulouse, 26-18 winners yesterday at Dax, on the first weekend in January.

Leicester: J Liley; S Hackney, W Greenwood, S Potter, L Lloyd (R Underwood, 64); R Liley, A Healey; G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson, M Poole (R Field, 55), J Wells, D Richards (capt), N Back (E Miller, 33).

Harlequins: J Staples; D O'Leary, G Connelly, W Carling, D Luger; P Challinor, H Harries; J Leonard (capt), K Wood, L Benezech, Gareth Llewellyn, Glyn Llewellyn, R Jenkins, B Davison, L Cabannes.

Referee: C Thomas (Wales).