Rugby Union: Tigers burn bright in muddy lair

Leicester 27 Richmond 0
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The Independent Online
IT WAS not nearly so difficult back in the dark ages. Winning away, that is. Time was when a really good side, a Leicester or a Bath, could hop on a Friday afternoon bus to some far-flung outpost of the rugby kingdom, spend all evening on the foaming stuff, take in a late vindaloo and still pocket the league points without undue exertion. Nowadays, travelling players eat sticks of isotonic celery and hit the sack before Newsnight, only to return home with nothing more satisfying than a dislocated ego. The fun has gone out of it, don't you think?

Certainly, Richmond found precious little to laugh about in Tiger territory on Saturday, not least because they had rather fancied their trip up the M1. A win there, they figured, would set them up for the season.

Fat chance. As John Kingston, their coach, ruefully observed afterwards, Welford Road remains an absolute pig of a venue for visiting teams. "Apart from anything else, the Leicester crowd is so gloriously one-eyed," he said. "They are a very real weapon in the Tigers' armoury because they win decisions for their side. That is not a criticism of Ed Morrison, the referee, because I really don't have a problem with him. I'm simply saying that when 10,000 people are telling one bloke with a whistle that it's a forward pass, human nature dictates that he'll agree with them."

One or two further thoughts occurred to Kingston: "I would say there are now 10 Premiership grounds at which it is very, very difficult to win. I would also say that when it comes to picking up results on the road, rugby is even more difficult a game than football. It goes back to the refereeing because there are so many subjective decisions."

Kingston, as shrewd as you like, was spot on in his analysis. The statistics reveal only seven away victories in the 39 matches played before yesterday. With very nearly 50 per cent of the top flight unbeaten on their own terra firma, the title will surely be won by the side that travels least badly.

That team may yet turn out to be Leicester, despite the frequency with which they leave their best form on the coach. Let them loose at Welford Road, especially when the wind is blowing and the rain is hosing down, and they take one hell of a lot of beating. They had no centres to speak of against Richmond - no Will Greenwood, Pat Howard, Stuart Potter - so they simply cut their coat to suit the available cloth by asking Joel Stransky to put the ball in front of his forwards and leave the rest to them.

If Stransky played the conditions quite beautifully, his performance was nothing compared to the majestic effort turned in by Martin Corry. "Martin is playing the best No 8 rugby in England," smiled his coach, Dean Richards, who, better than anyone alive, knows what it is to play the best No 8 rugby in England. Corry has always been able to "carry the ball up", as the tacticians like to say, and now that he can play going backwards, too, he finally looks the genuine article.

That he lost nothing to an inspired Scott Quinnell was recommendation in itself, for the Welshman was far and away Richmond's stand-out performer. In fact, he was pretty much their only performer. Hangdog Scott may have been the subject of transfer discussions and he may have been feeling even more put upon than usual thanks to his dismissal at Wasps six days previously, but all that anger and uncertainty worked in the Londoners' favour on this occasion. He went through the whole repertoire: ball-carrying, wrap-up tackles, cover tackles, turn-over hits, the lot.

Not that it made the blindest bit of difference to the outcome. Quinnell stripped Neil Back of the ball on the floor as Leicester laid early siege, only to see the home forwards reclaim possession from the resulting line- out, churn a maul towards the line and spew the England flanker over for the opening seven-pointer. They doubled their winnings on 23 minutes when Agustin Pichot, failed to secure a dangerous loose ball and gifted Darren Garforth the softest of tries to the right of the posts. Once again, Stransky completed the formalities.

The South African opened up a 17-point gap before the interval, stretched it to 20 just after the hour and then took it upon himself to capitalise on James Overend's muscular thrust by swallow-diving over from short range with a couple of minutes left on the clock. It was that simple, that straightforward.

Leicester: Tries Back, Garforth, Stransky; Conversions Stransky 3; Penalties Stransky 3.

Leicester: G Murphy; L Lloyd (M Horak, 78), J Overend, J Stuart, N Ezulike; J Stransky (A Goode, 78), A Healey (G Becconsall, 78); D Jelley (P Freshwater, 68), R Cockerill (D West, 68), D Garforth, M Johnson (capt), N Fletcher (W Johnson, 62), P Gustard, M Corry, N Back (L Moody, 74).

Richmond: M Pini; N Walne, J Wright, M Dixon, S Brown; E Va'a, A Pichot; D McFarland, B Williams, D Crompton, B Cusack, C Gillies, B Clarke (capt), S Quinnell, A Vander (R Hutton, 64).

Referee: E Morrison (Bristol).

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