Rugby Union: Smiths' vision kicked swiftly into touch: Depression descends as Wasps and Leicester wage war on a narrow front - Orrell's victory disfigured - Quins dig deep

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The Independent Online
WAS it all a dream, the misty notion that the English First Division might have summoned up its Courage and be in the throes of a renaissance of running rugby? Most of us would admit to having been seduced but then we went to Sudbury, saw Wasps play Leicester, and woke up.

In theory, at least, this ought to be one of the defining club events of the season. If so, it is going to be a pretty rotten season, a nightmare - definitely not a sweet dream - of stops and starts, penalties and line-outs, goal-kicks and scrums, bodies everywhere.

In other words a yawn, just when we dared believe in the good intentions of so many leading coaches and players. If we are wrong to rush to an October judgement on the basis of the excruciating 23-18 win which keeps Leicester up there with Bath, now four points ahead of Wasps, then obviously we were, too, with what had gone before during September.

You will get an idea of what it was like from the fact that Rob Andrew's 18-point haul from five penalties and a drop goal was no great shakes because he missed six other penalties. Jez Harris landed five (including a conversion) of nine kicks for Leicester.

Half the game seemed to be spent with place-kickers lining up pots at the posts and only a fraction with the contrasting styles of running rugby with which these two distinguished clubs have said they wish to illuminate the new season.

Leicester's Smith, coach Ian, had more cause for satisfaction than Wasps' Smith, coach Rob, simply because his team had secured the precious two points but it is clear that the Australian flat- passing game is demanding more of the unbeaten Tigers than they are yet delivering. 'We have won by scoring more points,' Ian said in his best coach-speak, 'but the manner of the victory is something we continue to try to improve on.'

He admitted that during the week since Leicester beat Gloucester he had worked on a somewhat steeper three-quarter alignment - which hardly ties in with this from his own coaching director, Tony Russ: 'It's a truism of the game that if you aren't playing under pressure defences aren't under pressure.'

Never mind the alignment, there was no width, the ball still stalled in midfield as ball-carriers consistently ran into tacklers without managing to release it, meaning that the intended liberation of the Underwoods on the wings - the strategy's basic purpose - is more impatiently awaited than ever.

'It's all fine-tuning,' the ever- positive Smith suggested, noting that Leicester were producing the required rugby in flashes but that flashes were not enough to beat the best sides. Well, Wasps are one of the best sides and it beat them, but one can take it for granted that it would not be enough to beat Bath.

The one, match-winning exception was Rory Underwood's materialisation off the left wing outside his right centre and inside his brother, Tony, who majestically accelerated to the corner. But this was a taste of the possible that did no more than tickle the palate. Otherwise the game was dominated by an unholy alliance of boot and whistle, collapsed mauls and killed ball.

'Unless you can break up the game against Leicester, you are going to get caught in a dogfight with Dean Richards and not many people come off best in that,' said Andrew, who having played 31 times with Richards for England should know. Steve Pilgrim, making his comeback 20 months after being banned for having a rugby league trial, put it more succinctly: 'If we ran it, they would still kill it.'

Wasps did not put this theory to the test. They had been flattered by the admiring response to their demolition of Gloucester and Harlequins and so stung by their unexpected defeat at West Hartlepool the previous Saturday that, to Rob Smith's dismay, they virtually abandoned the open style that was fleetingly their hallmark.

Both coach and non-playing captain, the injured Dean Ryan, promise it will be restored when they go to Bath next Saturday. But from the moment the acting captain, Steve Bates, kicked his first piece of possession and Andrew kicked his long-range first penalty instead of running it, the wide game of which so much has been made became a figment of Rob Smith's imagination.

So it remained until too near the end when Wasps were forced into the very 'catch-up' rugby that Smith wants them to play from the outset. 'I was just astounded that we went out and played that way,' he said. 'We said after last week that we were going to continue to play our way, but we didn't even attempt to. We went on the field to play a running game but we never even tried until the last 10 minutes. That's what we should have been doing for the whole game.'

If Smith found it inexplicable, even Rob Andrew could not enlighten him as to why Wasps allowed this collective conservatism to descend upon them. 'We haven't been successful playing that way in the past and that's not the way we are going now,' Smith insisted. Which is roughly what Andrew meant when he promised: 'There's no question that we will go into our shells.'

We can only take his word for it. Perhaps the patent inadequacy of their reversion to forward functionalism will persuade Wasps that, even against Bath, supposedly high-risk rugby is in reality less risky. 'The problem was that we settled in the first half for playing the game the way it happened naturally instead of making things happen ourselves,' Andrew said.

In other words, the antithesis of all those good intentions. The road to hell is paved with them, isn't it? 'I'm sorry you all came up to watch Wasps running the ball around,' Smith said. Apology accepted, Rob, as long as Wasps now go out and do it at Bath instead.

Wasps: Penalties Andrew 5; Drop goal Andrew. Leicester: Try T Underwood; Penalties Harris 5; Drop goal Harris.

Wasps: J Ufton; S Pilgrim; A Thompson, G Childs, S Hunter; R Andrew, S Bates (capt); G Holmes, K Dunn, I Dunston, R Kinsey, N Hadley, M Greenwood, C Wilkins, M White.

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

Referee: S Piercy (Goole).

(Photograph omitted)

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