Rugby Union: Stransky inhabits another time zone

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The Independent Online
Coventry 14

Leicester 50

England's knock-out champions usually make do with a traditional 53-seater coach for away matches, but Martin Johnson and his Leicester Tigers were forced to travel by Tardis on Saturday as the only means of reaching the antediluvian time zone inhabited by their hoary old Midlands neighbours from "Shakespeare Country". They survived the trip without undue alarm, partly because their rivals fell back on obsolete midfield kicking tactics that might have been cobbled together by the Bard himself.

Coventry boast a glorious history, but have not been the same since Noah quit rugby and took up sailing. Their Coundon Road ground is a relic - a not very interesting one, either - and they still possess a superannuated public address announcer who, in the best traditions of his kind, does his best to ignore anything that might be happening on the pitch. "Helen Price of our catering staff is 21 today," he spluttered into the microphone as Joel Stransky launched another withering Leicester back-line move. "Many happy returns, Helen."

But what is this we hear rustling among the tufts of grass sprouting through the cracks in the terraces on the "popular side"? Why, it's a future. And a bright one too, if the tea leaves have been read correctly. Before very much longer, the second flight of the Allied Dunbar Premiership may well possess a second Bedford, another venerable outfit brought bang up to date by an injection of serious amounts of new money.

"Things are going to happen here," insisted Derek Eves, the best English open-side flanker never to win an England cap and now director of rugby at Coventry. "We know we need to recruit in one or two important positions and when the money is available, recruit we will. And yes, I expect to raid the bank account fairly soon." Eves declined to pinpoint the source of the folding stuff, but he added with barely concealed excitement: "We'll win promotion, no doubt about it. Coventry will be a top-flight club in the next couple of years."

What Eves did not reveal was that Coventry had agreed the sale of Coundon Road, where Duckham, Preece and Jackson worked their magic in bygone eras. The club will bank somewhere in the region of pounds 3m and have been guaranteed a 60-acre green-field site on the edge of town, on which to build a state- of-the-art, all-seater stadium. Access to grant money, not only from the Rugby Football Union but from a variety of sports-related bodies, has been sorted. Exciting times indeed.

Whether they will ever wield sufficient financial clout to purchase a stand-off of Stranskyesque proportions, only time can tell. That, though, is what they will need if they are to live with the grown-ups. Eves is no doubt correct in his prediction that the Midlanders will make the big step up sooner rather than later - ironically enough, they may well get there at the expense of the flanker's once beloved Bristol - but survival in Premiership One demands quality as well as ambition.

Stransky was a magisterial figure on Saturday as Leicester moved sweetly into the fifth round of the Tetley's Bitter Cup - so commanding, in fact, that his accuracy in kicking nine goals from nine attempts was probably the least of his accomplishments. In a half-back partnership with Austin Healey, he prodded and probed and dummied and shimmied with all the confidence of a maestro who knows he is running into a purple patch. Four months of this and Leicester can look forward to at least one solid silver reward for their season's efforts, possibly two.

Especially as they are far better equipped than last year to deal both with the inevitable fixture congestion in March and April and the fatigue factor that affects all sides with a large and active international contingent. They went into the game without Greenwood, Potter, Serevi, Rowntree, Cockerill, Corry and Miller and for half an hour or so, Coventry made them sweat. From there on in, though, the youngsters - Geordan Murphy, Lewis Moody and Paul Gustard operated at Stransky's tempo and raised their collective game to an altitude that left the home side in need of an oxygen tank.

Moody, just 19, was outstanding in the back row - more eye-catching than Neil Back, indeed - while Gustard repeatedly revealed a startling turn of speed. The revered Dean Richards, who observed one haring run down the left wing from the replacements' bench, would have found it difficult to achieve similar velocity in his old police car, let alone on foot.

"On some occasions last season, we had to play people who were unfit," said Bob Dwyer, the Leicester coach. "On other occasions, they were so unfit we couldn't even do that and we ended up fielding guys who were just off the pace. We're better off for cover this time, although that doesn't mean to say we don't want this whole fixture situation settled. We have to play fewer games and if that means merging the league and cup at some stage, well fine."

Fighting talk on a serious issue. All the same, Dwyer would not swap his problems for those confronting Coventry. "We've got a dozen full-timers, which means the rest are juggling their jobs with their rugby," said Eves. "When we trained indoors at Worcester last Tuesday night, our hooker couldn't make it because he was on Water Board duty. What happened today? He missed one important throw to the back of an attacking line-out, they nicked the ball and scored a try at the other end."

Clearly, that new money cannot arrive quickly enough.

Coventry: Try Dawson; Penalties Brown 2; Drop goal: Gallagher. Leicester: Tries West 2, Lloyd 2, Penalty try; Conversions: Stransky 5; Penalties Stransky 4; Drop goal Murphy.

Coventry: W Kilfrod; J Minshull, M Gallagher, R Robinson, A Smallwood; J Brown (J Harris, 66), T Dawson; R Hardwick (capt), D Addleton, V Hartland (B Williams, 73), D Zaltzman, D Duley, L Crofts, I Patten, D Eves.

Leicester: G Murphy; M Horak, A Leeds, J Overend, L Lloyd; J Stransky, A Healey; P Freshwater (D Jelley, 63), D West, D Garforth, M Johnson (capt), F van Heerden, L Moody, P Gustard, N Back.

Referee: D Chapman (Yorkshire).