Rugby Union: Problems mount for Bedford

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Leicester 26 Bedford 0

ALL LEICESTER had to worry about was maintaining their superlative defensive record. The weightiest thing on the mind of Dean Richards, their rugby manager, was keeping down the number of tries against struggling Bedford.

"We have conceded 10 tries in the last three league games and the motivation for today was not how many points we scored, but that we didn't concede any. The 10 tries really grated, it is not acceptable," said a disgruntled Richards. No wonder, because before those three games, which began with Wasps running six past them last month, Leicester had let in just 11 tries.

But true to the form of a side at the head of the Allied Dunbar Premiership, the Tigers duly kept out an eager, but ultimately overpowered Bedford. The smile was back on the face of the old Tiger.

The contrast between that and the troubles and travails of Rudi Straeuli, is glaring. The Bedford director of rugby is assailed almost every day with some fresh hell. The conceding of tries, the total Bedford have let in is now 50, must be the least of his worries.

This was their ninth defeat on the trot and the former Springbok is unhappy about that. "I've lost nine games in a row and it has never happened to me. Not even at school," said the shell-shocked Straeuli.

Add to that the fact that Straeuli's own playing future hangs in the balance - he is awaiting a medical report on an Achilles tendon injury - but he had, in any case, announced his retirement from playing last month. Perhaps realising the folly of that, because his work permit states that he is granted permission to reside in this country as a professional player, not as a coach, Straeuli has been on the bench since then.

But there is every likelihood that the Home Office will want to re-examine Straeuli's status at Goldington Road, either when his work permit runs out in June next year, or earlier, if they feel he is in breach of the conditions. So there is one more problem for him worry about.

But Straeuli is nothing if not an honourable man and he has a sound ethos.

"I've got a responsibility towards Bedford," he explained. "My goal was to get Bedford into the First Division and keep them there, so I am still fighting my corner. My goal, which some people are saying is unrealistic, is to keep Bedford stable in the First Division, working within the financial budget that they can afford. That's difficult."

Made even more so by the loss of key personnel. "People have just jumped ship," he said, perhaps having a swipe at coach Paul Turner (now with Saracens) and the man Straeuli replaced as director of rugby, Geoff Cooke.

"I could easily find a job back home. I've got a law degree. I've had offers, but I've signed a contract and I've got a moral responsibility to these boys at Bedford. I've got to keep on going."

His team is certainly not without heart. The spirit is willing, sadly the flesh is not there. And not even Rory Underwood, playing his first competitive match since leaving Welford Road in 1997 could mark his return with a try for old times' sake. With no financial means to attract the necessary key personnel Straeuli is in a straitjacket. And that is another problem. While the club is confident that the next pay day in January will be met through the club's day-to-day earnings, the long-term financial future is still in the lap of the gods, or at least the legal authorities.

Owner Frank Warren's assets have been frozen pending a legal case against the American boxing promoter Don King, which is to be heard on 11 January. One way or the other Warren's assets will be released, but just how much will survive the hearing is another source of anxiety.

All they can do is persevere with what cash and playing resources they have to hand. But Straeuli must wish he were in a position to say what Richards said after the Tigers second clean sheet of the season. "We have a squad that could, potentially, win the title, but it is going to take an awful lot of hard work," Richards said.

He is right of course. Tigers have some big matches away from their cosy Welford Road den - Harlequins, Northampton, Bath, Saracens and Newcastle among them - but as the season slips past the half-way mark and into the New Year, the sound money would be resting on Leicester lifting the title rather than on Bedford staying up.

The sound money is also still being put on Neil Back to score the first try of the game. The bookmaker refuses to learn from earlier, costly mistakes.

Back's price when Ladbroke's began their temporary sojourn at the ground was 25-1, and they had to pay out. On Saturday, the seventh and last of the experimental period, the bookmakers had to cough up for a fourth time and yet had only cut the odds to 7-1.

But if his team-mates are tempted to put their jerseys on the England flanker, the club has ordered the players not to lay out a penny for fear of reprisals. For all that, Back would not have minded the odd fan showing their appreciation of his efforts. "I've not had so much as a pint," he said, after scoring his ninth try in the Premiership to move level with England colleague Jeremy Guscott of Bath in the Premiership's list of leading try scorers.

Leicester: Tries Healey, Cockerill, Lougheed; Conversions Stimpson; Penalties Stimpson 3.

Leicester: T Stimpson; L Lloyd (M Horak, 67), S Potter, P Howard (J Stuart, 45), D Lougheed; G Murphy, A Healey; G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth (D Jelley, 67), M Johnson, F van Heerden (N Fletcher,18-27 & 70), P Gustard, M Corry (A Balding, 74), N Back.

Bedford: B Whetstone; R Underwood, D Harris (J Ewens, 52), A Murdoch (capt), D O'Mahoney; T Yapp, R Elliott; A Ozdemir, J Richards, V Hartland (C Boyd, 41), J Beardshaw (J Cockle, 58), S Murray, R Winters, J Paramore, J Forster.

Referee: E Morrison (Bristol).

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