Rugby Union / Pilkington Cup Final: Leicester's tyros state case for the future: Hapless Harlequins fail to repeat their rampaging heroics of old as Potter and Johnson strut their stuff at HQ

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SO IT was no epic when Leicester won the Pilkington Cup. Nothing could have been after the colossal close encounter between Bath and Harlequins in 1992. Never mind; the 56,000 squeezed into Twickenham may well have witnessed one of the defining matches of the 1990s.

Talk is easy, a lot easier than playing cup finals against Quins, and various Tigers have been doing a lot lately about how they are the team of the future. And with a cup in their possession for the first time in a dozen years, they believe themselves about to be the new Bath.

This was certainly not proved by Saturday's victory, well deserved though it was, but the game provided the most significant step yet towards the reassertion of an old pre-eminence. Remember, it was the Tigers who dominated English club rugby when they won their hat-trick of cup finals from 1979-81.

Now they have finally begun to lay the ghost of those brightly burning predecessors. Any other First Division club - even including Bath, the champions and more familiar cup finalists - would kill (or at least find a decent job or two) for young tight forwards as promising as Leicester's.

The Tigers have won the cup and finished third in the league when there are years and years of development still to come. Skill, strength and speed are all there in abundance, but equally this final demonstrated a determined attitude not generally associated with Leicester.

Thus when Harlequins had scored their try after nine minutes while many Tigers were accustoming themselves to an unfamiliar ambience, Leicester replied in kind nine minutes later. Twice more when Paul Challinor penalties put Quins back in front, Leicester rapidly eradicated their disadvantage.

These were signs of growing maturity, or at least of a growing capacity to deal with problems - which perhaps amounts to the same thing. 'We have a group of young players who have gained a vast amount of experience over a short period of time,' Ian Smith, the Leicester coach, said as he considered the golden vista.

'When they have gained the same experience as the side of the Seventies and Eighties, I'm looking forward to the day when all our squad are pushing for international honours - never mind three or four British Lions, never mind nine or 10 players in the senior national squad.'

Smith played in all three winning cup finals and went on long enough to play in the losing one against Bath as recently as 1989, but he is more than ready for the success to which he and his co-coach Paul Dodge notably contributed to be consigned to fond memory. 'I'm loath to make comparisons with the side Paul and I played in,' he said.

'But this side have a new, young breed of player; they are a very exciting, very interesting and very enthusiastic bunch, and they have the potential to go on to achieve at least as much as, if not a great deal more than, the Leicester side of those days and the Bath side of the last decade.

'When Leicester won those three in a row everybody said nobody would do that again but then, hot on our heels, at Bath Jack Rowell got his men organised and they produced results that have had no comparison ever in rugby football. When this side put together the best they are really capable of, we will become the new yardstick of first-class rugby.'

It is big, big talk, though scarcely a hostage to fortune given that Leicester's oldest players are only 29 and every member of the Twickenham team will be back for more next season. Quins, too, it should be noted, have considerable youth on their side, but their performance in this final fell some way short of the rampaging heroism of '92.

They were not assisted by the late withdrawal of Brian Moore, and though Nick Killick is a thoroughly capable deputy there were uncomfortable echoes of the disruption through injury and suspension which had preceded last year's final. (The England hooker's groin strain apparently does not put in jeopardy his place on the Lions tour to New Zealand.)

Perversely, they had played better in those considerably less propitious circumstances and on this occasion, once their initial effort had passed, they could not raise their game in accordance with Harlequin cup tradition. So although Peter Winterbottom's contribution was singled out for acclamation by Smith, an old open-side adversary, the send-off into retirement given the stalwart flanker by his colleagues was oddly tepid.

'I don't really have any emotions,' Winterbottom said - which in a way summed up Harlequins' performance, passionless as well as so stilted that Challinor relentlessly hoofed the leather off the ball. It worked once, when a wicked up-and-under created the mayhem which ended in Rob Glenister's try, but never again.

The Tigers were no freer in their tactical imagination, squandering the pace of the Underwood brothers by wilfully failing to give either a clear run, even after their magnificent first try had suggested Quins would be vulnerable against long-range rugby.

John Liley in fact had no alternative to running from defence when he fielded Challinor's kick outside his 22. But he then meandered unchecked into Harlequin territory before Aadel Kardooni, Jez Harris and the inevitable Neil Back set Stuart Potter on his scoring burst, Glenister and Kent Bray conveniently buying the centre's dummy.

As Quins thereafter were mostly on the back foot, to succumb only once more was a reasonable achievement even if Leicester's second try, giving them the lead for the first time after 49 minutes, was a sucker punch. At a tapped free-kick every defender followed the decoy runs rather than the ball, opening up a corridor down which Martin Johnson charged.

With the England lock's try, in effect, came the cup and if we are to believe Smith, Dodge and Tony Russ, the club's estimable coaching director, it will be only the first trophy among many. But wait, what's this? 'Cups, caps and titles don't motivate the people who play at Leicester,' Smith said. Who is he trying to kid?

Leicester: Tries Potter, Johnson; Conversions Liley 2; Penalties Liley 2; Drop goal Harris. Harlequins: Try Glenister; Conversion Challinor; Penalties Challinor 3.

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

Harlequins: K Bray; C Madderson, W Carling, G Thompson, J Alexander; P Challinor, R Glenister; J Leonard, N Killick, A Mullins, A Snow, R Langhorn, M Russell, C Sheasby, P Winterbottom (capt).

Referee: A Spreadbury (Bath).

(Photograph omitted)

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