Rugby Union: Lynagh gives Saracens the edge

Saracens 14 Leicester 13
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THE bullishness of England's Premiership clubs in deciding to withdraw from the European Cup next season, no matter what crumbs of comfort and compromise are thrown to them by the tournament organisers, may well have its source in occasions such as this compelling, taut Tetley's Cup tie at Vicarage Road yesterday.

There was a good crowd, although well below the predicted total, a crackling atmosphere and a marvellously competitive contest in which the quality of the tackling mostly blunted attacking aspirations. It was nonetheless a match of spectacular endeavour and high energy, which makes it all the more regrettable that we are very unlikely to see either Leicester or Saracens on the European stage next season. It is the latest and, to date, the most dangerous act of brinkmanship attempted by England's top clubs, who are now hoping to forge an alliance with their French counterparts.

That, however, is for the future. Europe was just about the only thing which was not at stake yesterday. Pride, the right to be the country's best and, above all, a place in the last eight of the cup, were all on the line and on the day there could be not the slightest doubt that Saracens were the winners who took all. That the margin of their victory was so slender was almost entirely due to the magnificence of Leicester's defence which, by fair means or foul, kept Saracens pinned down. On occasions, in fact, it seemed that they were nailed to the floor, so determined and forceful was Leicester's tackling.

It has not been a total surprise this season to see Leicester's pack in retreat but the combination of an ailing scrummage and a line-out badly out of sorts proved too much for the Tigers. Their back row especially took these indignities to heart. They tackled themselves to a standstill and occasionally were tempted into deeds of rashness. Both Martin Corry and Neil Back were guilty of blatant late tackles on Michael Lynagh and Back's indiscretion earned him a yellow card. But there was only so much that Leicester's defenders could do. With Tony Diprose benefiting from the crispness of the Saracens' scrummage heel and their athletic pack matching Leicester in the loose, it was then a question of composure and guile in the backs.

In the incomparable Lynagh Saracens had the man for the occasion. His second penalty two minutes from the end won the match, but it was the overall quality and control of his play which helped to unhinge Leicester. Ryan Constable's try midway through the second half was a gem and here again Lynagh's experience and flawless timing played their part. Kyran Bracken broke thrillingly downfield, Francois Pienaar was quickly up in support and Lynagh, swinging right, threw a perfectly timed pass to Steve Ravenscroft who sent Constable in at the corner.

Saracens, though, were still behind. They had pounded into Leicester's defence, they had enjoyed superiority almost everywhere and they had spent long periods encamped in the Tigers' half. Yet they were still two points adrift. Despite their problems there was a persistent menace about the Leicester attacks.

The very sight of Joel Stransky coolly weighing up the options is enough to make opponents quake these days. His first penalty, to equalise Lynagh's early strike for Saracens, registered his 300th point for the season and with his second in first half injury-time he reached 500 points quicker than anyone in the club's history.

Yet all that paled into insignificance alongside his try which, though a shade fortunate, appeared to have altered the course of the match. A dreadful pass behind Matt Singer was seized on by Michael Horak, who tapped it into Stransky's path. The fly-half had just enough gas to reach the line and for good measure converted it from a testing angle.

It speaks volumes for Saracens' spirit and self-confidence that they did not give up the ghost there and then. If anything they redoubled their efforts and raised the pace of the game to a new, frantic pitch. But Leicester's midfield and their defence refused to break until eventually, and deservedly, Lynagh was given the chance to kick the winning points.

Saracens: M Singer; R Constable, P Sella, S Ravenscroft, R Wallace; M Lynagh, K Bracken;R Grau, G Chuter, P Wallace, P Johns, D Grewcock, F Pienaar, T Diprose (capt), R Hill.

Leicester: A Leeds; M Horak, W Greenwood, S Potter (J Overend, 73), L Lloyd; J Stransky, A Healey; G Rowntree, D West, D Garforth, M Johnson (capt), F van Heerden, M Corry, E Miller, N Back (L Moody, 73).

Referee: T Spreadbury (Bristol).