Rugby Union: Strain starts to show as Scottish wilt

Leicester 24 London Scottish 12
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IF, AS a result of the bewildering dealings off the field, London Scottish weren't entirely sure of who they were, they had no trouble in working out where they were at Welford Road yesterday.

Indeed, for a large part of the first half and on occasions during the second they were clearly the better side, and had they taken their chances they might well have caused an upset even greater than their defeat of Saracens earlier in the month. But three times in the first quarter when they had a two-man overlap and clear-cut opportunities to score they chose to kick. This was as unforgivable as it was crucial to the final result because it enabled Leicester to regain their composure and to assert their will over their opponents with increasing authority as the game progressed.

All the same it was hard to remember a time when the Leicester forwards had looked so cumbersome and clumsy in their movements, or when the backs, under the direction of Joel Stransky, had played with so little guile or imagination. Even the most basic rules, such as kick-offs and drop- outs, were poorly executed, and Pat Howard dropped out straight into the arms of Conan Sharman, who came within a couple of yards of scoring a try.

Sharman had been in the thick of the action as early as the first minute, when he attacked down the left before Derrick Lee wasted a glorious opportunity by kicking away possession on the right-hand side of the field.

Leicester's problems at this stage were compounded by their inability to deliver clean possession from the line-out. This was in part the result of Martin Johnson's late withdrawal because of flu and the need to switch Martin Corry from his accustomed position at No 8 into the second row. Understandably Corry took a little time to settle and until he did so both Mick Watson and Eddie Jones enjoyed a thoroughly productive spell.

On top of this, Guy Easterby was giving his opposite number Austin Healey a lesson in the art of scrum-half play, varying his tactics shrewdly and opening up a number of exciting possibilities for his backs. Jannie de Beer dropped a goal with admirable economy of movement and kicked two penalties in a first half which, from Leicester's point of view, was memorable only for the try scored by Fritz van Heerden, although even this was only by default, Geordan Murphy having made the most awful hash of his scoring pass to Leon Lloyd in the lead-up to the try.

Despite making a number of unforced errors, Murphy is a hugely talented player. His running from full-back was at times devastating and he played a prominent part in the try of the match, linking with Howard to put Lloyd over in the corner two minutes into the second half. As Murphy had also kicked two penalties in the first half, he contributed nobly to Leicester's cause before leaving the field injured, to be replaced by Tim Stimpson.

By this time Leicester, if not at their best, were at least beginning to give the impression of a side in control of their own destiny. Their victory was assured when Van Heerden scored his second try having taken up a position on the left wing and finding himself perfectly placed to take full advantage of Healey's blindside dart.

Scottish still managed to retain their shape, despite coming under increasing pressure, and the accuracy and timing of some of their passing especially in the tight confines of the forward exchanges drew applause even from the Leicester crowd. Stimpson sealed the victory with a penalty in front of the posts but Leicester were never able to break the resilience and spirit of this Exile side. They will need these qualities in spades if they are to get through what remains of the season. Whatever happens with Bristol's attempted takeover, the club's future is far from certain. There is an urgent need for funds in the short term and for even more funding in the long term. But even more important for those with the best interests of London Scottish at heart will be the time they need to put together a realistic proposition to save the club from extinction.

Leicester remain firmly on course and, despite being below par yesterday, still look the most likely to win the championship. There were ominous signs, however, of fatigue, and in view of the fact that the club will have to surrender so many players for the forthcoming international series - so long as England retain their place in the Five Nations - there must be concerns over the players' ability to last the course.

A number, including the irrepressible Neil Back, were not functioning flat out but even so, it is going to take an uncommonly good side to thwart them.

Leicester: G Murphy (T Stimpson, 51); L Lloyd, S Potter, P Howard (J Stuart, 68), D Lougheed; J Stransky, A Healey (J Hamilton, 76); G Rowntree (D Jelley, 68), R Cockerill (D West, 68), D Garforth, M Corry, F Van Heerden, L Moody, W Johnson, N Back (capt).

London Scottish: I McAusland (S Forrest, 60); K Milligan, D Lee, R Erickson, C Sharman; J De Beer, G Easterby; P Johnstone, D Cummins (D Rudham, 40; M Macdonald, 74), P Burnell, E Jones, M Watson, S Fenn, R Hunter, S Holmes (capt).

Referee: C White (RFU).