Bath. . . . . 6
THE capacity crowd went away deliriously happy and the Tigers did themselves and the league a considerable favour. Had they not thrown this spanner into the Bath machine, the championship would have been effectively done and dusted less than halfway through the programme.
However, the celebrations were more about the result than the manner of it. Bath's first Courage defeat in 13 months vaulted Leicester over Harlequins and into second place, but the league remains something of a misnomer in that it is largely about fear. In matches as crucial as this, the summit of ambition is not so much covered in snow and ice, as in mole droppings.
It was decided, as was always going to be the case, by the rutting of antlers in the forwards and by the boot. The Tigers pack, gigantically led by Dean Richards, finally splintered a Bath eight minus Ben Clarke with a series of irresistible rolling mauls which led to John Liley's decisive penalty in the final minute of normal time.
The roar which greeted that kick, however, was several decibels below the roof-lifting explosion of relief following Stuart Barnes's injury-time penalty, which came within a couple of coats of paint of making it 9-9. Barnes, who had given away the match-winning penalty when adjudged offside in charging down Jez Harris's drop goal attempt, was spot on for direction from 40 yards but the ball dipped just under the crossbar.
'I thought I'd got it,' Barnes said, and he and Liley claimed afterwards that the icy atmosphere took yards off their normal distance. Barnes, however, was more philosophical about that than the crucial offside decision. 'I was not impressed,' he said.
The referee was as undistinguished as the game, particularly in an excruciating first half during which the ball was gasping for oxygen as it either disappeared into the Welford Road floodlights or deep into a pile of bodies. Apart from Victor Ubogu's charging bursts in the loose and Liley's occasional attempts to transfer the play from the dimensions of a telephone kiosk, only the tension of the occasion lifted it above mediocrity.
There was no shortage of talent out wide, but this was a day for bulldozers and anyone with the inclinations of a Porsche was kept locked in the garage. Rory Underwood, in his second game as emergency centre, was rarely used, while his brother Tony decided on a novel way of keeping warm by abandoning his wing and burrowing into the rolling mauls.
By half-time, Liley's early penalty had been overhauled by two from Barnes, but when Harris's crisply struck 35-yard drop goal midway through the second half brought Leicester level, the home forwards suddenly upped the pace to the extent that Bath's engine room found itself in the unfamiliar setting of full astern.
With 10 minutes to go Bath, having been shunted back fully 30 yards by an enormous Leicester drive, collapsed the maul. But even with only five yards to go, the Tigers went for the touchline penalty - which Liley missed - rather than the tap.
However, when Richards and Martin Johnson launched yet another rolling juggernaut in the dying minutes, Barnes was up to block Harris's drop too quickly for the referee's liking. Liley, having missed with three previous penalties, had actually resigned the job and appointed Harris to take the next one. But as this happened to be awarded almost underneath the posts, Liley claimed the honour of clinching Leicester's first league win over Bath in five years.
Leicester: Penalties Liley 2. Drop goal Harris. Bath: Penalties Barnes 2.
Leicester: J Liley; S Hackney, R Underwood, S Potter, T Underwood; J Harris, A Kardooni; G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson, M Poole, J Wells, D Richards (capt), N Back.
Bath: A Lumsden; A Swift, M Catt, P de Glanville, M Lloyd; S Barnes, R Hill; G Chilcott, G Dawe, V Ubogu, M Haag, N Redman, A Robinson, D Egerton, J Hall (capt).
Referee: J Pearson (Yarm, Cleveland).Reuse content