Rugby Union / Pilkington Cup Final: Popular victory fulfils paradox of affections

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The Independent Online
ALL the people I talked to beforehand went to Twickenham believing two impossible things. They wanted the match to be a fitting climax to Peter Winterbottom's career. At the same time they actually wanted Leicester to win. Harlequins are the Arsenal of rugby. They are respected, admired, even feared: but they are not loved.

Everyone feels an affection for Leicester. They are not arrogant, like Quins, or robotic, like Bath, or brutal, like Orrell: they are modest and pleasant and try to play rugby as attractive as the circumstances, and the opposition, will permit.

There was another factor which had lost sympathy for Quins even before the match began. That was the omission of Andrew Harriman. Most commentators and probably most players were on the side of the Quins coach, Jamie Salmon. Harriman had not turned up for training. There must be a serious approach, and so forth. But most rugby followers wanted to see the Boy's Own hero of England's sevens triumph.

Whether they would have seen much of him is another matter. His (or, rather, the unlucky Mike Wedderburn's) youthful supplanter, Chris Madderson, first spilled the ball into touch in a manner that was vintage Harriman. Then he tackled Rory Underwood. Then he had a good run. But it was not a match for wings, or for centres either. Will Carling had, by this season's standards, a typically subdued time.

Stuart Potter, however - perhaps he should be going to New Zealand instead - scored a marvellous centre's try for Leicester, of which Bleddyn Williams would have been proud. He was able to do this not only because of his own skill and speed but also because the Quins defence was so incompetent.

That is why it so resembled a try from the 1940s or 1950s, when defences were not so tightly organised. But the try which the Quins considered finished them off also came from poor defence. Martin Johnson, to his evident amazement, simply ran through.

Leicester's forwards did not outplay Quins, but they showed a superiority where it mattered. John Wells, who is unlucky not to have represented England, worked away as effectively and unobtrusively as ever. Dean Richards trundled around like a great, menacing tank. Neil Back gave a crucial pass in the move which led to Potter's try and found a fine touch which led indirectly to Johnson's try.

I would have said that he had a better game than Winterbottom, but my impression was authoritatively controverted by the Leicester coach, Ian Smith, himself a former distinguished open-side flanker. He thought that Winterbottom had played a masterly game, cutting out the Leicester threequarters, in particular the Underwoods, with his line of running. It was not enough. Though Winterbottom is not a demonstrative man - quite the reverse - he was clearly disappointed at the end.